San Francisco has banned commercial electric scooters, which can be rented via apps, from its streets – after several months of confrontation between the authorities and tech companies.
Three upstarts – Bird, LimeBike, and Spin – that have littered the American city with thousands of scooters that can be grabbed, used, and then left anywhere, now face fines of $100 per day for every scooter that is left in a public right of way. In recent weeks, the council has seized and impounded literally hundreds of scooters abandoned illegally.
For those who haven't seen these things in action, the idea is you pick up a nearby electric scooter belonging to one of these startups, use your phone to pay to ride it, take it wherever you want, and then ditch it in the street when done. It means they're left everywhere in San Francisco for people to trip over, besides all the needles and filth downtown. They plague other cities, too.
The scooter companies will now have to apply for a one-year trial permit that places a cap on the number of them allowed in SF: 1,250 for the first six months, rising to 2,500 afterwards.
The decision is just the latest battle between tech bros and San Franciscans. The scooters have been infuriating city residents for several months due to their tendency to be abandoned in the middle of the sidewalk, or in bus stops, and the fact that they are often driven at high speed past unsuspecting pedestrians – something that is also illegal.
Defenders of the scooters say they are providing a quick, fun and cheap way to make short rides within the city.
With the new ban, the cheap aspect to the scooters has come under scrutiny. The scooters rent for $1 plus 15 cents for every minute you use them. In order to rent the scooter, you need to download each company's app and scan the scooter to unlock it.
But those apps' give the companies a remarkable amount of data and the right to sell it to whomever they see fit, making the scooters more of a Facebook-on-wheels than a fun alternative transport.
Among the eyebrow-raising rights that the companies award themselves is the ability to check users' credit ratings – which seems a little unnecessary given the small-dollar amounts charged.
Terms, conditions, text and calls
They of course track your location and award themselves the right to sell any information they gather about you to advertisers. And they attempt to excuse themselves from any liability for information breaches – even though they require and store credit card information in order to use the service.
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But one of the companies – Lime – also gives itself the ability to send users automated text messages and phone calls. You can opt-out but it will take a month to be processed and the company retains the right to manually call and text.
Such terms and conditions are now likely to come under scrutiny as the scooter companies apply for a transportation permit – and one San Francisco supervisor is already on the case.
"You think you’re getting on a scooter for a buck," Supervisor Aaron Peskin told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They think they are mining your personal data and selling it. They're giving you a cheap ride because they’re taking you on a long ride down a short pier."
Peskin points out that the companies have all told him that they aren't selling the data but he points out that that promise is very much in the present tense and the fact they've not sold the data yet is most likely because they've only been in business for a few months.
Each company has put out the all-too-familiar corporate pledge about "taking privacy seriously" but none have promised not to sell the data they gather on users and the app's terms of service specifically give them the right to do so.
As a result, Peskin says he's going to go GDPR on their asses and will propose a new rule that requires companies that are awarded city contracts to be clear about what data they are gathering and what uses they will put it to.
The transportation agency that will ultimately sign off on the permits has also included a privacy provision in its application. In addition, there is a $5,000 permit application fee and a $25,000 annual fee.
What remains unresolved is how to deal with the fact that most users of the scooters persistently break the law by zooming along sidewalks when they should be in the road, and very few of them wear crash helmets, as required by law. It's also state law that users have a valid driving license before riding one.
One company – Bird – has already responded through its lawyers claiming it has no responsibility for what its users decide to do when on their scooter. The others are trying a less aggressive line, saying they will print guidelines on their scooters, as well as toll-free complaints numbers, and require driver licenses before approving users. ®