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Contxto – The Peruvian government is picking a fight with Colombian ride-hailing app, Picap. As of one week ago, this application is no longer downloadable for users. It has been blocked by phone service providers. Ah, but there’s more to this poor excuse for censorship than meets the eye.
This Uber-on-a-motorcycle-style service has been in hot water since El Comercio, a local newspaper, published the conversations of some very questionable drivers in a WhatsApp chat on November 12.
Comments ranged from drivers bragging about being off their rocker on drugs, drinking on the job, sharing female passengers’ personal information while making lewd comments about them, the list goes on. And brace yourself, many drivers have allegedly been using their chat group to share… child pornography.
To make matters worse, Picap’s rep in Peru, Matías López-Therese was part of this 270+ member WhatsApp group. The fact that El Comercio went on to list a number of traffic infractions committed by Mr. López-Therese seemed a bit like overkill, after keeping mum on the privacy violations.
Overall, the evidence was damning.
Three days later the Ministry of Transport and Communication in Peru shut the app down.
Picap may have fallen asleep at the wheel
Naturally, that same day, on November 12, the Colombian startup released a statement declaring that it’s against all types of violence and sought to shield López-Therese from the PR onslaught. That same week the startup declared it submitted its 8,000 drivers to a screening process of which only 2,000 would remain as authorized drivers.
That’s 75 percent of their people with questionable backgrounds that were driving people across Lima’s unpredictable traffic. Picap acknowledged that they had a lax screening process. The confessed that they “had sinned,” but that did little to ease the government’s wrath.
In a peculiar twist, the ride-hailing app is now preparing a class-action lawsuit against the Peruvian government. Lawyers are concerned that this censorship may spill over and hurt other third-party applications. They also argue that Picap shouldn’t be held accountable for its drivers’ misbehavior over an independent communication tool like WhatsApp.
The Peruvian government hadn’t involved itself in conflicts with ride-hailing apps of this level before. If anything, it had at one point meekly struggled to jostle Uber and Cabify to protect their users’ data. But that was pretty much it. This may explain the government’s need to overreact, and mix seemingly unrelated civil, penal, and mercantile legal actions.
For its part, Picap’s version of this scandalous story has more holes in it than Game of Thrones’ final season:
The startup is defending the legality of its app based on a technicality (definitely not a sign that they’re grasping for straws). The law actually explicitly forbids public transport on two-wheeled vehicles. Yet, the app’s creators say they run on a private network and are not a taxi service. This clearly makes no sense. There is a ton of publicity throughout Lima where they describe their service as a “motorcycle taxi.”
Picap’s founders stated that if an agreement can’t be reached with the Peruvian government, they’ll walk away from the country, at least in terms of passenger transport services.
The lawyers serving the class action lawsuit do have a point. Censorship of apps of this nature is hazardous to those who do abide by the law. It sets a nasty legal precedent. Moreover, it is undeniable that traffic congestion is still a major problem throughout Latin America, which is why an idea like Picap may sound good in countries across the region.
However, this is no excuse. The app conducted poor screening and putting users at risk. As a user you cannot consider the driver to be an independent agent separate from the startup. They are the face of the business, so naturally one can’t help but hold Picap accountable.
It isn’t about nitpicking about the technicalities of it all. Just do your job and don’t wait for this kind of stuff to just appear hot and steaming on your desk one morning.
As someone who often uses ride-hailing apps this is all very alarming. Clearly, Picap’s team has screwed up, yet it doesn’t justify any form of government overreach. Of course, this fight is far from over, and the the coin is still fluttering in the air. Which way do you think it will land?