Last week saw just the latest in a line of explosions of opposition to Silicon Valley’s latest flavour of the month: Uber. Valued at an astronomical $17bn following a latest round of investment fundraising, the digital ‘ride sharing service’ is at the forefront of another disconcerting wave of tech firms ready to thrust its ever more aggressive brand of Randian libertarianism on the world. Here are eight reasons why it sucks for us all:
1. Uber’s happy smashing taxi unions.
From New York City to San Francisco, and from Paris to Berlin, Uber has unapologetically endeavoured to smash taxi unions standing in the way of what their executives call ‘progress’.
In London, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) – acting on behalf of black cab drivers across the capital – were described as being ‘stuck in the dark ages‘ by the company for doing relatively little else than stand up for its members, whilst in Germany it said it would continue to operate in the country despite being banned by a regional court in Frankfurt – following a case brought by Taxi Deutschland – for violating the Passenger Transportation Act.
Licensed taxi drivers are angry because Uber has been able to circumvent the regulatory requirements cabbies are forced to adhere to the world over; notably, acquiring permits and insurance and undergoing licence checks.
2. Misogyny from the top.
In a recent interview with GQ, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, revealed he calls the app ‘Boob-er’ because of how much ‘success’ he’s had with the ladies since its launch. Meanwhile, Uber’s Emil Michael (‘senior vice president for business’) suggested spending $1million doxing researchers who sought to criticize the company, with female journalist Sarah Lacy being reserved a special place in this so-far hypothetical plan, in order to ‘give the media a taste of their own medicine‘. Lacy’s series of exposes of what she called the ‘horrific trickle down of Asshole culture‘ in Uber and the wider tech world set #ubergate trending big time last week.
3. It doesn’t seem to care about female passengers.
According to the editor of the Gawker media blog Valleywag, a female Uber passenger contacted him in confidence to explain how on using its ‘low-cost’ UberX service she was subsequently kidnapped and taken on a 20 mile, two-hour round trip, in which she was driven to an empty parking lot, without reason. At 5am.
The next day, after alerting Uber to the harrowing events she had just experienced (complete with evidential screenshots), an ‘automated’ email response apologized for what in Uber’s terms amounted simply, and clinically, to an ‘inefficient route‘. Rather than, you know, a kidnapping.
4. It knows where you are…
Thought your data was ‘de-personalized’, anonymized and aggregated? Because of data privacy and everything? Think again. More recent news has come out to suggest Uber employees have access to an internal tool that allows for the tracking of Uber vehicles and customers, after journalist Johana Bhuiyan was told upon arrival at the company HQ in New York that her journey had been tracked by the very person she was coming to interview.
Oh, and the name of the creepy tool? The ‘God View’. Someone call Donna Haraway. Fast.
5. …and where you’ve been.
Back in 2012, Uber thought they’d ride the ‘big data’ wave and get scientific on us. Except that where actual scientists go through a universally accepted process of peer review in order for others to evaluate the veracity of their claims and all that, Uber’s ‘data nerds’ (their words, not mine) thought they’d go all wild and start making spurious conclusions based on ‘ride patterns’, i.e. when and where people use Uber.
In lieu of any kind of ethical framework or apparent oversight, Uber’s data team thought they’d not only dedicate time to working out a rule by which they could identify which of their passengers had had one-night stands (based on the proximity of respective rides, pre- and post-night out), but bragged about it in a blog post and renamed them in typically Uber-macho terms ‘rides of glory’.
Consistent with their recent desire to erase all evidence of these past, purportedly ‘scientific’ efforts, the post has now been deleted. It still, however, remains cached here for the rest of the world to see.
6. A metric obsession.
Depending on who you trust, Uber drivers can be sacked if their average rating falls below something like 4.6 out of 5 stars. As a result, they’re being forced to drive as if every journey is their last. One bad ride and your average drops. One more and you’re on the edge, pleading with your passengers to assign 5 star ratings.
As in any other industry where we’re seeing metrics on the rise – education, welfare and medical care, for example – we’re seeing a detrimental effect on those working within. Rather than seeing a rise in quality as the metrics are supposed to drive, we’re actually seeing not only a dip, but also an increasingly anxiety-ridden workforce. Uber’s drivers are no exception.
7. It pretends it’s not actually a taxi firm at all.
Instead Uber insists upon calling itself a ‘marketplace’ in which drivers and passengers are simply matched up. In doing so, Uber side-steps the regulatory questions connected to licensed taxi firms, like in Helsinki, where Nordic operations manager Jo Bertram described Uber as offering a ‘different kind of service‘ to that of a taxi company.
Presumably this latest reiteration of the tired Uber party line has nothing to do with circumventing taxi licensing. But in presenting itself as merely a software firm, with drivers signed-up as ‘self-employed contractors’ rather than employees, Uber is able to drive down the usual costs associated with operating a taxi firm. You know, like all that boring legal stuff that prevents stuff like driver kidnappings (see point 3), or hell, hammer attacks on passengers. A blog post by Uber investor Bill Gurley in March this year drew attention to how this laughably shallow line of argument works, as well as shining the spotlight on its more-than contentious…
8. ‘Dynamic Pricing Model’.
AKA, Uber’s very own algorithmically-calculated price mechanism. Ride demand and driver supply combine to ensure the ‘correct’ ride price is figured out. Except no one outside of Uber knows exactly how the algorithm calculates such costs.
Moreover, the presence of what Uber calls ‘price surges‘ force passengers into paying extortionate fares for otherwise routine journeys, based on the its euphemistic Dynamic Pricing Model that jacks up the cost of the ride in order to ‘get drivers out onto the road’. It’s why Uber passengers are forced to pay up to seven times the standard rate during bouts of inclement weather, and some have even shelled out $539 taking an 18 mile trip on Halloween.
If you were maybe thinking Uber wasn’t all that bad, think again.