Recently, I wrote about an odd, distressing situation involving an executive at Uber, a texting-friendly taxi service, who thought he should do oppo research on a journalist. One hopes that the matter has been straightened out because 1) journalists (people who choose to write about other people’s lives) rarely have lives worth exposing and 2) his approach to media interferes with news gathering for the public.

But several other issues that arose during the controversy are worth unpacking:

As Charlie Warzel notes at Buzzfeed, we ought not to view a company like Uber as merely a cell phone app:

The problem: “Move fast and break things” works when the “things” are software. It works slightly less — and poses a serious safety concern — when those “things” are people.

Uber, like Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Instacart, or any of the poorly labeled “sharing economy” apps, are part of what research analyst Jan Dawson has labeled “the digital layer”: services that are powered and made possible by technology, but exist primarily in the physical world. Packaged in app form, Uber’s technology has rendered it transformative. But to call Uber an app doesn’t quite do the service justice. Uber is, for better or worse, a massive, world-changing dispatch company.

Perhaps our mental picture needs adjusting. We usually think of Internet stuff as not impacting the real world. But increasingly, it does. 

Internet-based taxi services, at present, could cause one to contact real-life criminals—or angry demonstrators in favour of traditional taxi—all in the service of just getting home quickly and safely.

Some services may be operating illegally, which creates a liability problem for the passenger. That is, entitlement to a claim for damages under civil law could be reduced if one were participating in an illegal activity.

We can  contend that we didn’t know the service was not legal. But it would be our responsibility to demonstrate that. If the service has been legal for decades, we don’t need to demonstrate anything except the damages. 

In any event, cutthroat competition can create risks, including the risk that the driver does not even have adequate insurance:

Uber’s insurance coverage is questionable. Drivers only have contingent coverage with low-limits during “app on” mode. Although Uber claims to have a million dollar liability policy during a trip, other sources question the viability of that policy (which only provides contingent coverage for collision), and the solvency of the insurer.

As any personal injury attorney will attest, a million dollars in coverage seems great until someone is run over, paralyzed, and hooked to a feeding tube for the rest of his life. Passengers cannot count on the driver’s policy. As soon as the driver’s insurance company gets hit with a claim, they’ll deny it because virtually every policy excludes commercial use of the vehicle.

But none of this is really about the Internet or Uber; it’s about what happens when the digital world must be translated into the real world, which lacks a back browser option. Things can get broke that can’t be fixed or erased from memory.

There are doubtless solutions. But we won’t find them if we don’t start by raising the problems. Read this first:

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...