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
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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