Earlier on this year, a local court of Buenos Aires issued an injunction blocking the Uber app, electronic payment methods and forbidding Google and Apple to host the app on its apps stores, and Facebook to advertise Uber. The decision’s logic is as wrong as straightforward: Uber must be blocked (and banned) since its drivers “occupy public spaces to engage in commercial activity”. This misdemeanor was established to forbid street selling, but in a creative way has been applied to Uber drivers’ activity. This decision violates the right to science and the right to free speech, since these human rights play an important role in protecting innovation.
With some minor differences in wording, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 27), the ICESCR (art. 15) and regional human rights documents proclaim the right of everyone “[t]o enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications”, usually known as the right to science. This right has not been at the forefront of the minds of human rights scholars or practitioners. However, the exponential increase of scientific innovations and the fundamental changes that the internet has brought suggests that this oversight might be coming to an end.
In 2012, Ms. Farida Shaheed, then UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, issued a report on the right to science. A meaningful paragraph explains the importance of scientific advancement, stating that“[n]ew scientific knowledge and innovations increase available options, thereby strengthening people’s capacity to envisage a better future for which access to specific technologies may sometimes be pivotal”. In addition, in 2012 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights cited the right to science in a health related case. It is clear that its importance is growing.
Free speech is a better known right and needs no introduction. It “applies fully to communications, ideas and information distributed through the Internet”.
Let’s examine the central issue: what is the link between these two rights and ridesharing platforms?
First, as any other right, the right to science should be accessible to everyone, without discrimination. The abovementioned 2012 report suggests that, within this right, special attention should be paid to “scientific advances likely to have a significant impact on human rights, such as electricity, information and communication technologies, nanotechnology and synthetic biology”. These goals should not exclude those small impact actions that, when aggregated, have a massive effect in huge populations’ living standards, such are those related to transportation in big metropolis. If scientific progress allows us to improve the time we spend travelling each day, our health, our economy and the environment, why should users of apps such as Lyft or Uber be excluded from the protection of the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications?
This kind of service, rather than banned, should be made more accessible to most people, especially low income populations (countries with lower levels of financial inclusion should design policies to strengthen access for the low income population to these services–something in which some Mexican states, with a 56% of adults not owning a bank account, that forbid cash use to pay Lyft or Uber, fail to do).
Second, attempts to ban these platforms through internet blockades collide against free speech and internet architectural principles. The Internet has been a massive force for innovation, that allows people to create “content, applications and services in a decentralized manner”. Blocking is an extreme measure, the application of which should be saved only for certain type of speech, narrowly defined: war propaganda and the advocacy of hatred that constitutes the incitement of violence; the direct and public incitement of genocide; and child pornography. Thus, although state authorities can and should regulate these apps as they deal with transportation, they cannot use disproportionate means such as internet censorship or blockades (the form of an extreme blocking such as the one ordered in Argentina), although it is not turning out to be effective.
The idea of banning ridesharing apps, or regulating them so as to distorting their well-functioning or limiting their ability to reach users faces potential drawbacks when analysing it from a human rights law perspective. If, as shown above, these apps deliver the promised results, rather than obstructed by governments, they should be encouraged, especially to reach those in need.