The Seattle city council votes on an ordinance that would allow Uber and Lyft drivers union representation on December 14. It looks like Washington D.C. libertarians are paying close attention.
On December 14, the Seattle city council will vote on an ordinance that would allow Uber and Lyft drivers union representation. It looks like Washington D.C. libertarians are paying close attention. eskay / Shutterstock.com

On Wednesday, a policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI)—a D.C. "free market" think tank well-known for pushing climate change denialism—published an op-ed expressing concern about Seattle's upcoming vote to allow Uber and Lyft drivers union representation. The key problems with the proposed legislation, analyst Trey Kovacs writes, are drivers' flexibility and privacy:

Purportedly, legislators are pushing the measure to "ensure safe and reliable" transportation. However, the bill invades drivers' privacy and could force many of them into joining a union, which would likely upset the framework that has led so many individuals to become Uber drivers in the first place.

Heidi Groover has written about why the claim about flexibility has some issues, but let's turn to privacy. Kovacs' main concern is that the city would hand over information about drivers to nonprofits or unions:

It would require companies like Uber to hand over all drivers' personal information — names, home and email addresses, and phone numbers — to any union representatives who requested it while seeking to represent drivers. Unions would gain access to all drivers' personal information before any drivers officially stated that they desired union representation. This would also enable union organizers to harass workers, both in person and via phone and email.

Kovacs' fretting over Uber drivers' privacy seems a little misplaced given the company's own well-publicized track record of privacy gaffes. Last year, the company got into hot water over allegations that it tracked a Buzzfeed news reporter's ride without her consent. Uber has also been criticized for flaunting "God View," a bird's-eye view of customer rides, at parties. More recently, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington D.C. civil liberties watchdog, alleged that Uber's collection of location information and contacts is unlawful in a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission.

But let's put aside privacy complaints about customer data for a minute. When it comes to driver privacy, a recent study from the Data & Society Institute and New York University found that Uber's real-time data collection practices monitor drivers constantly. Drivers, by comparison, have very little information about how the app functions:

Uber’s digital platform mediates drivers’ activities, performance, and locations, thus enabling constant monitoring even though their workplace is inherently mobile; the boundaries of workplace surveillance are effectively porous, even if they provide an incomplete view of all of the drivers non-digital interactions with customers, such as verbal communications.

Study authors Alex Rosenblat and Luke Stark continue:

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Uber’s surveillant practices – accomplished through both company policy and the interaction design of their app – produce significant information asymmetries between the corporate entity and individual drivers. Through real-time data collection, Uber’s core full-time employees, such as data scientists and engineers, have access to and control over vastly greater quantities of information about each driver’s work experience. Each driver’s metrics can thus be compared to drivers in aggregate and ranked accordingly; Uber thus produces prompts that direct drivers where, when, and how to work (discussed in detail below). Information asymmetries are not byproducts of Uber’s app design, but fundamental parts of the Uber business model. Instead of offering reliable wages, Uber’s system enforces blind acceptance of passengers by drivers, who are not shown the passenger’s destination or how much they could earn on the fare. Drivers risk “deactivation” (being suspended or removed permanently from the system) for cancelling unprofitable fares. The Uber system requires drivers to maintain a low cancellation rate, such as 5% in San Francisco (as of July 2015), and a high acceptance rate, such as 80% or 90%. Drivers absorb the risk of unknown fares, even though Uber promotes the idea that they are entrepreneurs who are knowingly investing in such risk. This discourse of entrepreneurship in the tech sector is the legacy of a Silicon Valley environment where highly skilled and mobile workers could take on risks and trade-offs to be part of the start-up world (Neff, 2012, p. 24), but this rhetoric of risk has effectively been retooled to suit a contingent of lower-income workers who are recruited to perform service labor, not highly-skilled technical work.

You can read the rest of the paper here. (I highly recommend it.)

But TL;DR: Seattle's upcoming Uber vote has D.C. libertarians freaking out.