In today’s data economy it is inevitable that even quotidian affairs, such as hailing a cab, may be the subject of realtime analytics: the passenger’s actual location, the cabbie’s current whereabouts, the parties’ distance from each other, the traffic condition en route to the pinned destination, transaction histories, among other data points.

It is this same state of affairs that has given occasion to the widespread utilization of transport network companies or TNCs by the commuting public, and correlatively, the declining appeal of traditional taxis on the road.

As with all things popular, it was just a matter of time before TNCs, notably Uber and Grab, became the subject of government scrutiny and regulation. The result is a perennial tug of war between the public that sees TNCs as a welcome alternative to the decaying and often unreliable mass transport system in the country today and government regulators accused of unduly interfering with a popular concept making life expectedly difficult for everybody.

In this tug of war, who should prevail and at what cost?

Regulating TNCs

TNCs gained popularity across the globe a few years back, thanks in large part to Uber – a US-based startup which, through its eponymous ride-sharing app, utilize data to allow passengers to book vehicles to transport them from one place to another without the usual inconvenience that comes with hailing an actual cab on the road. Thus,app users need not endure waiting on the roadside and competing with other waiting commuters or guessing how much the fare is going to be.

The idea proved to be a hit that the concept was immediately being replicated all over the planet. There is, apparently, nothing more universal than the woes of public commuting.

In the Philippines, Uber and Grab, a ride-sharing app popular in Southeast Asia, were and remain to be a tale of success: Filipinos fed up with rude cabbies, dysfunctional taxi meters, erratic frequency of cabs, dilapidated units, and insane traffic jams now prefer to book brand new TNC units driven by relatively well-mannered drivers whose identities and scores from previous trips are known to their passengers, in much the same way that information pertaining to the latter are also known to the drivers. The fact that every single trip is recorded in the cloud somehow lends a sense of safety and security to both parties.

Given the novelty of the web-based ride-sharing model vis-a-vis the more traditional metered taxis on the road, government regulation of TNCs has not been exactly free from controversies.

In 2015, the Land Transport and Regulatory Franchise Board (LTFRB) – the lead agency mandated to issue franchises to these TNCs – issued Memorandum Circular No. 2015-016, which provided for the terms and conditions for the issuance of a certificate of transportation network company accreditation. Nothing in the subject memorandum provided for a mechanism to standardize fares, essentially giving the TNCs free rein to raise fares (i.e., “surged prices”) as they see fit without the benefit of an LTFRB resolution – something traditional taxi operators cannot do.

In 2015, the LTFRB likewise issued Memorandum Circular No. 2015-017, which enumerated the guidelines on the acceptance of applications for a CPC to operate a TNC service. Two years later, Uber was slapped with a hefty P190 million fine, due to its admission that, contrary to the terms of its franchise, it allowed colorum drivers to utilize its system.

Integrity of security infrastructure

The enormity of data accumulated by TNCs on a daily basis, including sensitive personal information and personally identifiable data, led some privacy advocates to weigh in on the risks surrounding the possible hacking of such massive pool of data or its being used for undesirable purposes.

Such fear proved to be well-founded after all. In late 2017, Uber disclosed that sensitive personal information belonging to some of its Filipino users, along with 57 million other Uber users globally, may have been compromised in a massive hack. Despite the clear wording of the Data Privacy Act requiring data breaches of such nature to be disclosed to the affected users at the soonest possible time, Uber Philippines’s disclosure was made more than a year after the occurrence of the breach. News reports indicating that Uber had paid the hackers a significant sum to destroy the stolen data, as well as the assurances made by the TNC itself, do not serve to assuage the public’s fears regarding the integrity of Uber’s security infrastructure.

Despite the controversies they managed to stir in the last year or so, it is indubitable that TNCs, such as Uber and Grab, have provided a much-needed boost to the problem-riddled land transportation sector in urban regions in the Philippines. Indeed, TNCs have given the Filipino commuters a decent and convenient alternative to the traditional transport systems currently in place.

But good intention, no matter how well-meaning, should not trump adherence to law. And so it behooves TNCs, as public utilities, to always observe strict adherence to all the laws and regulatory guidelines.

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