Even when compared to a budding techno-utopia like San Francisco, the glittering city of Seoul still looks futuristic.
South Korean citizens living there don't really use credit cards; smartphones provide a constant wireless tether to bank accounts. The city boasts one of the fastest broadband connections on Earth, and while the rest of the world is just beginning to amble into 4G networks, Seoul is already looking into how to implement 5G.
And now, the city is engaged in a very public tiff with Uber, one of the companies that has helped reshape Silicon Valley across the Pacific. Instead of allowing the ride-hailing startup to eke out a market for itself in its confines, Seoul is looking to ban Uber and build its own app.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Seoul's city government claims Uber violates South Korean law that "forbids fee-paying transport services using private or rented motor vehicles unregistered with the authorities." An Uber representative in Seoul denies the service is illegal, saying it doesn't run a taxi service, but rather provides the technology to connect passengers with drivers. In response to an earlier statement from Seoul authorities, Uber said in a statement: "Comments like these show Seoul is in danger of remaining trapped in the past and getting left behind by the global 'sharing economy' movement."
"Trapped in the past" is an odd way to describe one of Asia's brightest metropolises, but it highlights some of the downsides to Uber's aggressive expansion strategy in foreign markets to build fast and deal with regulators later. Uber's legal woes stateside are well documented, but the legal, economic, and cultural battles that it has encountered in overseas municipalities so far have been the fiercest.
For example: In Paris earlier this year, angry taxi drivers attacked Uber vehicles during a massive protest, claiming they posed unfair competition to the city's long-standing chauffeur industry. In Germany, meanwhile, Berlin and Brussels have already banned Uber outright for the time being.
Seoul now appears to be well on its way to doing the same. In April, the city issued a fine of 1 million won ($974) to any Uber driver who picked up a customer while enlisting a rental car.