Can Marco Rubio Google and Uber His Way to the Youth Vote?

The potential 2016 presidential candidate is positioning himself as an advocate for consumer-friendly tech issues after a push last year on immigration reform fizzled.

Senator Marco Rubio arrives to speak during the American Conservative Union Conference March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
March 24, 2014, 11:28 a.m.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio wants reg­u­lat­ors to stop in­ter­fer­ing with your travel choices after a long night out on the town — and he hopes you’ll think of him the next time you hitch a ride through a ride-shar­ing ser­vice.

The Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­an is no stranger to as­sail­ing big gov­ern­ment, but on Monday he con­tin­ued a gradu­al pivot to­ward speak­ing out on tech is­sues that he has in­dic­ated could res­on­ate with young voters come elec­tion sea­son.

“What reg­u­la­tion should nev­er be is a way to pre­vent in­nov­a­tion from hap­pen­ing,” Ru­bio said dur­ing an event in Wash­ing­ton hos­ted by Uber, an on-de­mand car trans­port­a­tion ser­vice. “It should nev­er al­low gov­ern­ment … to pro­tect es­tab­lished in­cum­bents at the ex­pense of an in­nov­at­ive com­pet­it­or.”

Uber has quickly cap­tured a glob­al pres­ence in more than 70 cit­ies by al­low­ing those in need of a lift to use a mo­bile app to quickly con­nect with drivers. It and sim­il­ar ride-shar­ing com­pan­ies have grown massively pop­u­lar among young urb­an­ites, but are barred from com­pet­ing with taxi ser­vices in a num­ber of Flor­ida cit­ies, in­clud­ing Miami.

Ru­bio, a 2016 pres­id­en­tial hope­ful and one­time fa­vor­ite son of the tea-party move­ment, has made a habit of late of de­rid­ing gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion for get­ting in the way of tech in­nov­a­tion. Earli­er this month he spoke at Google’s Wash­ing­ton of­fice about eas­ing fed­er­al con­trol of wire­less fre­quen­cies and com­mer­cial­iz­ing pub­lic re­search by bring­ing the private sec­tor closer to fed­er­al agen­cies like NASA. He also called ac­cess to the In­ter­net “cent­ral to hu­man free­dom.”

At Google, Ru­bio used ride-shar­ing re­stric­tions as an ex­ample of an is­sue that young voters care about, not­ing that “for the first time, I see young people that po­ten­tially might be friendly to more gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment in our eco­nomy ar­guing against reg­u­lat­ory im­ped­i­ments to an ex­ist­ing busi­ness — in this case, gov­ern­ment crowding them out.”

Ru­bio’s fo­cus on wonky, tech-cent­ric is­sues sig­nals a no­tice­able de­par­ture from his ad­vocacy for im­mig­ra­tion re­form, which he helped pass out of the Sen­ate last year be­fore the House drove the is­sue off the table. The first-term sen­at­or has not lim­ited his pet pri­or­it­ies to the tech world, just as Sen. Rand Paul’s ag­gress­ive cri­ti­cism of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance hasn’t been at the ex­pense of oth­er is­sues.

But on Monday, Ru­bio stuck to script, point­ing to how star­tups like Uber are in­spir­ing ex­amples of the Amer­ic­an dream at work. He largely de­flec­ted a ques­tion on wheth­er an is­sue like ride-shar­ing reg­u­la­tion could be used to at­tract young voters.

Sev­er­al large cit­ies across the coun­try are grap­pling with how, or wheth­er, to change their taxi codes to ad­dress the grow­ing en­croach­ment of al­tern­at­ive trans­port­a­tion com­pan­ies. Last week, Seattle be­came the first city in the coun­try to pass a law lim­it­ing the al­low­able num­ber of such drivers on the road at any giv­en time. Three big play­ers — UberX, Ly­ft, and Side­car — are capped at 150 con­cur­rent drivers each, mark­ing a size­able re­duc­tion of the col­lect­ive fleet of 2,000 drivers the com­pan­ies es­tim­ate are cur­rently op­er­at­ing.

The de­cision was cheered by tra­di­tion­al taxi com­pan­ies, but panned by some oth­er ob­serv­ers as a stifling and un­ne­ces­sary stab at an in­dustry cap­able of provid­ing im­mense eco­nom­ic growth.

“Wow. Seattle. You’ve lost your mind. This is how you fall be­hind in in­nov­a­tion,” Box founder Aaron Levie tweeted after the city’s vote came down.

The Flor­ida Le­gis­lature is cur­rently con­sid­er­ing a bill that would al­low the state to grab con­trol of chauf­feur trans­port­a­tion, which would likely clear the way for Uber and its kind throughout the state.

When asked for his opin­ion of the bill Monday, Ru­bio said he had not read it.

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