Today, the Seattle city council will vote on a radical piece of legislation that aims to give ride-hailing app drivers the opportunity to bargain collectively with the likes of Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. No other city has attempted to confer labor rights to local on-demand economy workers in the same way.
But last week, with this consequential vote looming, Uber went to court to temporarily block a lawyer's public records request to King County about the number of Uber drivers on Seattle streets. King County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mack initially sided in Uber's favor, granting a temporary restraining order based on the idea that learning about the number of Seattle Uber drivers would constitute publicizing a trade secret.
Steve Ross, a labor and employment attorney at firm Keller Rohrback, said that his firm filed the public records request to King County a month ago. "We had filed a public records request to try and get some information about the employment situation, or lack of employment situation of Uber drivers," he said. "It was just to try and get some very preliminary information about how many of them there were and what their status was."
Uber has selectively released some information about its drivers in the form of surveys, but not detailed demographic data in all the cities it operates. Keller Rohrback's request asked King County for the number of for-hire licenses it granted to Uber drivers.
In the complaint filed in King County Superior Court, Rasier LLC—a wholly-owned subsidiary of Uber—argued that the "information requested by Defendants has significant economic value, actual and potential, because it is not generally known or readily ascertainable to other persons, including Rasier's competitors in the King County TNC market." The complaint continued: "Rasier's competitors would derive economic value if they obtained this information."
Still, Uber's objection seems pretty weird given the fact that ex-Obama aide/now Uber chief advisor David Plouffe came to Seattle earlier this month and readily shared estimates of the number of drivers on Seattle streets. Plouffe said Uber has 10,000 drivers in Seattle, which is similar to the number in Philadelphia.
And yet in court filings, Uber general manager Brooke Steger further elaborated on why information about the number of drivers could be damaging:
Information about the number of personal vehicle drivers affiliated with a TNC platform is an important indicator of that TNC's market share and penetration in the personal vehicle portion of the TNC market. Whether Rasier's information is released in conjunction with Lyft's data or not, the requested information will provide Rasier's competitors with detailed information about the size of the King County personal vehicle TNC market and Rasier's market share. A competitor could use the information about the number of drivers affiliated with Rasier who have a TNC endorsement coupled with well-established industry metrics about driver earnings and hours (or the competitor's own internal data), to estimate Rasier's market share, the overall size of the TNC personal vehicle market in Seattle, and other details about Rasier's business that the competitor would not otherwise be able to obtain.
According to court documents, Uber was notified on November 25 that this information could be handed over by December 14, the day of the city council vote. Judge Barbara Mack granted the temporary restraining order on December 8. A preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled for January 15.
"We are puzzled by the timing of this," Ross, the Keller Rohrback attorney, said.
Uber did not respond to a request for comment.
Read Uber's full complaint here.