Economy

Uber And Taxis Have A Common Enemy: Say Hello To Heetch

Car-sharing in France has gotten complicated. Though Uber was forced to shut down its amateur driver service UberPop, another app is antagonizing competitors by continuing to operate, and working with "suggested" prices.

Heetch team (top left), ride (top right) and users (bottom)
Heetch team (top left), ride (top right) and users (bottom)
Lionel Steinmann

PARIS â€" French taxi companies and Uber are still as much at each other's throats as they were back in mid-2015 during violent protests that shocked the country â€" with more clashes reported Tuesday.

But the two competing interests have since discovered that they have something in common: Both are alarmed by the rise of Heetch, a French ride-sharing app launched in 2013. Both accuse the new service of unfair competition.

Heetch is based on a model similar to that of Uber. It connects clients with non-professional drivers using their own cars, but with a little twist: It only operates between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., and at the end of the ride there is a suggested price that users are free to augment. Heetch was targeted by a national decree that banned Uber's app UberPOP. But the company has refused to be painted with the same brush, continuing its business despite the arrests of some of its hobbyist drivers. And it has built itself a growing customer base that has taxis and other driving services equally worried.

"Heetch continues to provide illegal transportation disguised as a car-sharing service, despite the decision of the Constitutional Council," a joint statement of taxi drivers released Jan. 7 said. They believe the company is illegally cutting into their business, along with similar services such as Chauffeur-privé. Right now Heetch is the second most-downloaded transportation app on Apple's App Store, behind Uber.

These companies are clearly worried about the prospect of losing revenue during the night, when Heetch is operational. But it goes deeper than. Some private drivers for Uber and others services â€" and many traditional taxi drivers too â€" are double-dipping, operating on the Heetch platform as well, an Uber France spokesman claims. That means diluting the availability of cars available for Uber and taxi clients.

Co-founder and CEO Teddy Pellerin keeps a low profile. "Our activity isn't exploding as much as some people want to believe," he says. Heetch now claims 50,000 rides a week*, compared to 40,000 in June 2015. But the app is now beginning to expand abroad, launching in Warsaw in mid-December. And at least one other European capital is expected to follow in the first quarter of this year.

Pellerin also maintains that Heetch is legal, because it doesn't provide a transportation service for a precise fee, he says. The price is only suggested. "Passengers are totally free to pay whatever they want at the end of the ride," he says. "And our drivers' income is limited to 6,000 euros ($6,500) per year, which is the average annual cost for their cars." In 2015, their average income was 1,850 euros ($2,000).

The argument doesn't convince Yves Weisselberger, founder of SnapCar. "Heetch does the same job as us, except their costs are twice as low because they don't pay any taxes," he says. "I don't want this app to be shut down, but the government needs to clearly say at some point what's allowed and what isn't."

*Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the number of rides Heetch reports. It is 50,000 rides per week, not per day. Sorry.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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