A few years ago the Conservatives were excited about the march of the tech giants. Uber was offering an alternative to black cabs at a far lower cost, and Airbnb enabled homeowners to rent out a spare room to tourists at a fraction of the rate charged by hotels. Politicians were no longer dependent on traditional media but could reach the public via social networks, and there seemed to be an explosion of entrepreneurs, empowered by the new tech, taking on vested interests. The Tories intended to be part of this revolution.
Their enthusiasm for people power was not to last. The government now plans to give regional mayors the power to curb Airbnb to protect the hotel industry (and the government tax base). The Online Safety Bill proposes an era of censorship in which social media giants would be heavily fined if they publish what ministers define as ‘harmful’ content. Uber has been steadily regulated so its prices have shot up while its reliability has collapsed. The battle for liberty is being lost, and the Tory party is part of the problem.
Tech firms must share the blame. They grew too quickly and used behind-closed-doors lobbying techniques which ultimately proved ineffective. Facebook, YouTube et al said little when Nadine Dorries’s appalling legislation proposed turning them into unpaid government censors. Indeed they seemed almost happy to collaborate, so as to cut smaller operators out of the market.
This week, due to a document leak, we have learned more about Uber’s lobbying techniques. We have seen how politicians worldwide were dazzled by lucrative campaign donations, side-hustles for families and friends and big consultancy contracts for their post-political careers. At first it seemed to work. A clearly starstruck Emmanuel Macron, then still merely France’s finance minister, allowed Uber’s officials to virtually rewrite the country’s transport rules to accommodate its fleets of Toyota Priuses.