Was Uber’s apology a good tactical move?

Soon after TfL announced its decision to refuse Uber’s application for renewal of its private hire vehicle operator licence, Uber’s new chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi issued an open letter to Londoners. Although the letter noted that “Uber has revolutionised the way people move in cities around the world”, it also publicly apologised for the mistakes Uber has made along the way. The company pledged to listen and “look to be long-term partners with the cities we serve”, and highlighted steps it is taking in London to support wheelchair users and tackle pollution. Finally, Mr Khosrowshahi gave his “commitment that we will work with London to make things right and keep this great global city moving safely.”

This letter appears to have been tactically astute. The closing reference to partnership and moving safely engages directly with two of the key concerns TfL raised about Uber in its decision – a lack of cooperation with regulators, and a mixed record on safety and security. These are concerns which are of great importance from a regulatory and public safety perspective. TfL needs to be assured that Uber is ‘fit and proper’ to operate in the capital, and this gesture goes towards constructive engagement to persuade TfL and the Mayor of London about ways forward in parallel with the legal appeals process.

Nobody can say whether this parallel dialogue will influence the ultimate outcome for Uber in London, but it is clearly an important step.

Whilst the apology is driven in part by tactical and commercial considerations, it is also important to reassure the public as well as TfL that Uber will improve upon the areas of criticism. When engaged in legal proceedings with public authorities, it is, in our experience, generally better to keep channels of communication open (as this does) rather than allowing them to close.

What could this mean for the future of Uber in London and other major cities?

Uber’s public apology helps the company to present itself as contrite rather than defiant or disengaged, which may soften attitudes towards it and perhaps help it to develop a more favourable narrative around some of its reported failings. Like the outpouring of public feeling since TfL’s decision (including a petition against the decision that has received over 730,000 signatures) Uber’s apology points to a second contest in the court of public opinion alongside the developing legal contest.

If nothing else, all this begins to pave the way for a future return to the London market with better systems and controls in place to protect the public, amongst other matters. It will also help Uber in its construction of an account of itself as a company in the process of reforming, which may prove valuable when Uber faces future licensing decisions elsewhere in the UK or around the world.

In closing we note that Uber is highly unlikely to be the only party on manoeuvres in response to TfL’s decision. For example, before TfL made the decision it was reportedly threatened with judicial review proceedings by the GMB in the event that it granted Uber’s renewal application without the imposition of conditions on Uber’s licence. This is a reminder of the potential importance of timely interventions deploying public law arguments in the run-up to major decisions of this kind. It also emphases that Uber’s opponents will also be looking for creative ways to counter Uber’s strategies, either in court or elsewhere. It is reasonable to assume that those around the world who may in future have similar battles to fight are watching to see what they can learn.

A version of this blog was first published on LexisNexis on 26 September 2017.