Gig platform report calls for transparency to fix abuse

A not-for-profit set up by a former Uber driver who successfully challenged the ride-hailing giant’s misclassification of drivers’ employment status in the UK, has published a timely report pressing the case for proper oversight of the algorithms and data used to remotely surveil and control the labor of platform workers.

Timely — given the European Union has just proposed legislation to enhance algorithm transparency on digital labor platforms as a lever to tackle problematic working conditions.

At the same time, lawmakers in the UK — which now sits outside the bloc — are consulting on lowering domestic data protection standards. Including, potentially, stripping out existing rights associated with automated decision-making; and removing the requirement to carry out a data protection impact assessment prior to processing sensitive personal data — which the not-for-profit warns would amount to “a hammer-blow for precarious workers who already have long been denied basic employment rights who could now be robbed of the means to hold rogue employers to proper account”, as the report puts it.

The report, co-authored by researcher Cansu Safak and former Uber driver James Farrer, who founded the Worker Information Exchange (WIF), is entitled Managed by Bots: Data-Driven Exploitation in the Gig Economy.

It contains a number of case studies which illustrate the obstacles and obfuscation faced by regional gig workers seeking to obtain data access rights to try to assess the fairness of platforms’ data-driven decisions about them and their labor (up to and including termination of their ability to work on the platform).

Examples discussed include ‘antifraud’ facial recognition checks that appear racially biased; drivers notified of fraud strikes on their accounts without being given clear, immediate information about what is triggering warnings that can also lead to account termination; and numerous instances of drivers not being provided with all their requested data while platforms work hard to frustrate their requests.

WIF’s report goes on to argue that “woefully inadequate levels of transparency about the extent of algorithmic management and automated decision making” is enabling exploitation of workers in the gig economy.

Litigation is one (extant) route for regional gig workers to try to obtain their rights — including employment protections and data rights — and we’ve seen plenty of both already in Europe.

Most notably, Farrer’s own employment classification litigation against Uber which forced the platform to finally recognize UK drivers as workers earlier this year.

However Uber’s self-serving interpretation still avoids paying drivers for the time they spend waiting for the next trip. (Aka: “Failure to pay for waiting time as working time enables platforms to take advantage of the immediacy of availability to drive up customer response time while driving down worker earnings,” as the report neatly sumarizes it.)

While — even in the UK — such workers are not protected against instant dismissal by (unfair) algorithm.

So the report makes the point that worker status is not itself a panacea against opaque algorithmic management — with the co-authors warning that “the recent gains in the courts do not fully protect workers against its harms”.

WIF is also supporting a number of challenges to gig platforms’ algorithmic control of workers, as we’ve reported before — but that’s also an expensive and time-consuming process for precarious workers who typically lack resources to fight platform giants through the courts.

So its overarching point is that current protections for individuals subject to algorithmic decision-making, such as those contained in Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, do not go far enough — allowing platforms to concoct convoluted justifications for withholding the workings of algorithms from those subject to opaque management and control by AI.

Here the report calls out platforms’ conflation of fraud management with performance management, as one example.

“The fact that such ‘fraud’ indicators are used as variables for work allocation and that the behaviours generating them are allowed to continue on the platform demonstrates that these are not instances of criminal fraud, but mechanisms of control, which assess how well workers are performing against the opaque metrics set by companies,” the report notes in a section subtitled “Surveillance Arms Race” — which discusses a variety of systems used by ride-hailing platforms Uber, Bolt and Free Now.

“We suggest that any ‘fraud’ terminology used in these contexts also function as part of the misclassification game, designed to conceal the employment relationship,” it adds, further arguing there has been “widespread proliferation and a disproportionate use of worker surveillance in the name of fraud prevention'”.

The report makes the case for increased digital rights protections to steer the industry in a better direction — allowing gig workers to gain “equality in digitally mediated work” vs today’s abuse-enabling power imbalance where platforms pull all the strings, and deploy denial and/or dark patterns to frustrate workers’ attempts to leverage existing (weak) legal protections.

Categories of data that platforms process about workers — which WIF’s report notes are typically made explicit in platform guidance documents and privacy policies — are often not shared with drivers when they download their data or make subject access requests under GDPR, underlining the discrepancy between existing levels of data processing by platforms vs transparency.

“In our experience, when workers seek out this information, gig platforms aim to make the process difficult and burdensome by engaging in a variety of non-compliant behaviour,” it writes. “Workers seeking comprehensive data have to navigate exceedingly complex and obstructive website architectures and need to circumvent further frustration efforts by support agents, who unnecessarily prolong simple administrative processes or provide automated responses that fail to adequately answer queries.

“These procedures can be described as ‘dark patterns’ designed to guide workers away from exercising their rights as data subjects. On the occasions where workers are able to obtain their data, it is often either missing considerable segments or presented in inconsistent and non-machine readable formats, making analysis effectively impossible. These acts of obstruction force workers to make repeated requests which companies ultimately use as a reason for discrediting them.”

“In all of the DSAR [data subject access request] returns we have seen, no employer has given a full and proper account of automated personal data processing,” the report adds. “This is particularly important in areas that can determine security of employment such as work allocation, performance management, safety and security, as discussed through this report.”

Again, platforms have sought to shield their algorithms from litigation seeking data on the AIs’ logic, inputs and outputs by claiming the “safety and security” of their services could be compromised if such information was disclosed to workers.

(And — in London at least — platforms such as Uber appear to have been pushed toward even tighter algorithmic surveillance of drivers (and use of flawed facial recognition technology) as a result of a safety-focused intervention by the transport regulator, TfL, which has, since 2017, has denied Uber a full licence to operate, citing safety concerns… )

But the report argues it’s the opposite that’s true, writing: “In our view, safety and security can only be enhanced when platforms transparently set rules and performance standards rather than relying on covert surveillance and summary dismissals, which are some of the key motivators of DSARs.”

Commenting in a statement, the report’s lead author, Safak, added: “The many worker cases we document in this report make it undeniably clear that the harms of algorithmic management are real and affect the most vulnerable. Gig platforms are collecting an unprecedented amount of data from workers through invasive surveillance technologies. Every day, companies make allegations of ‘algorithmic wrongdoing’ which they do not offer any evidence for. They block and frustrate workers’ efforts to obtain their personal data when they try to defend themselves. This is how gig platforms maintain exploitative power.”

In another supporting statement, Farrer said: “As gig economy platforms mature and regulatory pressure builds, we are seeing employers roll out intensive surveillance and opaque automated management decision making systems to exercise ever more hidden forms of control over workers. This report shows how the latest wave of employment misclassification tactics involves employers telling workers they are truly independent in their jobs while at the same time management control is wielded as forcefully as ever but from behind the digital curtain.”

WIF, along with the digital rights campaign group Privacy International and the App Drivers & Couriers Union is seeking to raise public awareness over the issue as regional lawmakers consider their next steps — launching a public campaign and petition that calls for greater algorithmic transparency and accountability from platform employers.

As part of the petition the groups say they will be writing to a number of gig platforms — including Uber, Just Eat, Amazon Flex, Free Now, Bolt, Ola and Deliveroo — to “demand answers” and “ensure that the unprecedented surveillance that gig-economy workers are facing from their employers ends”.


UK High Court deals huge blow to Uber-style ride-hailing contracts

In a landmark court decision against Uber, the UK High Court has ruled that its business model is unlawful.

The decision — which reboots the application of London’s regulations around private hire vehicle contracts — has huge ramifications for how ride-hailing platforms like Uber can operate in the UK capital and how much UK tax they will pay.

The crux of the issue is the contract model Uber and many other ride-hailing platforms have been applying. (And, indeed, how London’s transport regulator, TfL, has been overseeing — or, well, failing to — their compliance with the law.)

Long-standing regulations, dating back to 1998, establish the conditions for a private hire vehicle booking to be lawful in London.

The Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act predates ride-hailing apps — and companies like Uber have claimed to be complying with its stipulations despite simultaneously arguing they are not contractually bound by trips booked by its platform.

Back in February, a UK Supreme Court judgement — which demolished Uber’s claim that drivers were contractors not workers — raised key questions over its ride-hailing business model, as the justice suggested that the contractual scheme devised by Uber to claim compliance with UK regulations may be unlawful.

Uber, with the support of another ride-hailing player (FreeNow), responded by litigating to seek to have its model declared lawful by the courts.

Uber has argued that the acceptance of a booking constituted a contract between the passenger and the driver — to which it claimed it was not a party — seeking to maintain that its only role was to act as a booking agent providing technology services and collecting payment as agent for the drivers. (And, therefore, to shrink the legal obligations on its business.)

In a second judicial proceeding following the Supreme Court ruling, a London taxi association also sought to have FreeNow’s operator license quashed — arguing it was not compliant with the 1998 Act in relation to the issue of ‘plying for hire’.

The High Court ruling deals with both those claims — and while the court did not agree that FreeNow’s licence should be revoked because the judges did not conclude that the app is facilitating or encouraging drivers to ply for hire (the key point of legal challenge there) — the judges have essentially struck down the prevailing ride-hailing business model that operates under a claim of a mere agent role for booking platforms.

In concluding the judgement, the High Court makes it clear platforms cannot avoid a contractual obligation — writing that “in order to operate lawfully under the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 a licensed operator who accepts a booking from a passenger is required to enter as principal into a contractual obligation with the passenger to provide the journey which is the subject of the booking”.

The implications of the ruling on ride-hailing businesses operating in the UK look significant — not least in how much tax London-licensed ride-hailing platforms will have to pay per trip.

That in turn means there are likely to be ramifications for the cost of offering a ride-hailing service — and, more broadly, how viable it may be to operate such a service at all.

After all, even with self-serving contractual workarounds and other employment law fiddles shrinking operating costs, many of these platforms have not been able to turn a profit. And the core criticism remains that the gig platform business model is inherently — and, indeed, unlawfully — exploitative of labor.

Per the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU), which challenged Uber’s attempt to have its contracts declared lawful, almost all 1,832 TfL licensed operators in the private hire industry have used an Uber-style contract model since regulatory supervision began back in 2002 — hence the ruling will have industry-wide implications.

Other ride-hailing players in London include the likes of Bolt and Ola — which may also need to rework their models in light of this ruling in order to continue operating in the UK capital.

While the High Court ruling affects the ride-hailing industry in general, it was Uber that took legal action seeking the opposite outcome so there’s no doubt this is a serious blow to the company’s hopes.

In a statement Uber nonetheless sought to put out a less damaging spin — claiming to be ahead of rivals in providing benefits to workers, given it already made some changes following the Supreme Court ruling.

“This court ruling means that all the details of the Supreme Court decision are now clear. Every private hire operator in London will be impacted by this decision, and should comply with the Supreme Court verdict in full. Drivers on Uber are guaranteed at least the National Living Wage, holiday pay and a pension plan but we’re not the only player in town. Other operators must also ensure drivers are treated fairly,” an Uber spokesperson said in the statement.

(NB: Uber is still being challenged on how it calculates driver working time — as it only starts the clock when drivers accept a job, not when they’re logged into its app and available to accept a booking — so its legal risks over employment classifications have plenty more road to run.)

Uber added that it is reviewing the judgement — and said it will comply with the decision of the court.

We also contacted FreeNow for a reaction and a spokesperson told us it is also reviewing the ruling.

“As Europe’s leading multi-mobility platform we take our compliance to regulation seriously so we are currently reviewing this ruling in order to fully understand its implications for our business and what next steps we may need to take,” its spokesperson said in the statement.

The ADCU was jubilant on another major win — this time against what it dubbed “bogus contract constructions” which it characterized as “typical in the gig economy and the private hire industry”.

Such contracts are “the means to misclassify workers as independent contractors”, it argued, further claiming they’ve been the vehicle used to “shield operators like Uber from employer liability, legal liability to their customers and for payment of VAT”.

The Union further dubbed the ruling a “huge embarrassment” for TfL and  the Mayor of London — which it said have “failed to regulate the trade according to the requirements of the legislation”.

“This has resulted in drivers being brutally exploited and passenger safety put at risk while operators profited from the lack of proper regulatory supervision,” it added, citing a 2016 report by former Work & Pensions Select committee chair Frank Field MP — which it said described “the desperate conditions tolerated in a trade supervised by TfL”. (Field went on to conduct an inquiry into pay and conditions for platform workers in the food delivery space — which likened those apps’ labor model to conditions experienced by workers in 20th century dockyards.)

James Farrer, the ADCU’s general secretary, and a claimant in the aforementioned successful employment tribunal against Uber, also welcomed today’s High Court ruling.

“The private hire industry under Transport for London has been a cess pit of labour abuse for decades. With this ruling in place, TfL must ensure that all private hire operators take full responsibility for every trip they book and not dump responsibility on to drivers,” he told TechCrunch.

“The knock on effect of this will be that drivers can far more easily access worker rights protections now that the confusion of misclassification has been removed, passengers will enjoy greater protection and the Treasury will stand to collect 20% on every fare,” Farrer predicted.

In a statement, Yaseen Aslam, the ADCU’s president, added: “For years, the Mayor and Transport for London told us they had no powers to protect TfL licensed drivers from brutal exploitation by licensed operators like Uber. This ruling confirms that, not only had the powers all along but, in fact, they had the duty to act on these powers but failed to do so. The Mayor of London must now order an urgent review of TfL to find out what went wrong, to bring the industry rapidly into compliance and to ensure passengers and drivers are never again put at risk like this.”

TechCrunch contacted TfL and the Mayor of London’s office for comment — but at the time of writing neither had responded.

The ruling is certainly embarrassing for London’s authorities which have claimed to be taking a tough stance against Uber on issues of safety and governance, including — since 2017 — TfL repeatedly denying Uber a full licence renewal.

If TfL had applied the regulations as intended there’s no doubt Uber’s business would have had to look very different from the get-go. Indeed, the whole private hire vehicle model might have taken a very different turn.

While this High Court ruling is specific to London/the UK, wider pro-worker changes also appear to be on the way for gig platforms across Europe — as EU lawmakers are working on legislation they say will improve working conditions for platforms workers.

Last week Bloomberg reported this forthcoming EU plan could see as many as 4.1 million people working through food delivery and ride-hailing apps reclassified as employees — which sounds like it certainly take a bunch of steam out of a very VC-inflated sector.

Uber and other gig platforms, meanwhile, have been lobbying the bloc’s lawmakers to steer the other way — pushing for a Prop-22-style legal carve out for platform work that critics argue would cement a lower standard of employment protections for workers who are already among the most vulnerable and precarious.

So UK judges’ clarity on upholding the purpose of legislation being to protect workers looks very timely and may further influence the shape of incoming pan-EU rules for gig workers.

Uber faces legal action over ‘racially discriminatory’ facial recognition ID checks

Ride-hailing giant Uber is facing a legal challenge over its use of real-time facial recognition technology in a driver and courier identity check system that it uses in the UK.

The App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) announced the legal action Tuesday, alleging that Uber’s biometric identity checks discriminate against people of color.

The union said it’s taking the action after the unfair dismissal of a former Uber driver, Imran Javaid Raja, and a former Uber Eats courier, Pa Edrissa Manjang, following failed checks using the facial recognition technology.

Commenting in a statement, Yaseen Aslam, president of ADCU, said: “Last year Uber made a big claim that it was an anti-racist company and challenged all who tolerate racism to delete the app. But rather than root out racism Uber has bedded it into its systems and workers face discrimination daily as a result.”

The ADCU is launching a crowdjustice campaign to help fund the legal action — which it said is also being supported by the Equality & Human Rights Commission and the not-for-profit Worker Info Exchange (WIE).

The latter was set up by former Uber driver, James Farrer — who is now general secretary of ADCU and director of the WIE — and whose name should be familiar as he successfully sued Uber over its employment classification of UK drivers, forcing the company into a U-turn earlier this year when it finally announced it would treat drivers as workers after years trying to overturn successive employment tribunal rulings.

Farrer’s next trick could be to bring a legal reckoning around the issue of algorithmic accountability in the so-called ‘gig economy’.

The action also looks timely as the UK government is eyeing making changes to the legal framework around data protection, which could extend to removing current protections that wrap certain types of AI-driven decisions.

“Workers are prompted to provide a real-time selfie and face dismissal if the system fails to match the selfie with a stored reference photo,” the ADCU writes in a press release explaining how drivers experience Uber’s system. “In turn, private hire drivers who have been dismissed also faced automatic revocation of their private hire driver and vehicle licenses by Transport for London.”

The union says Uber’s real-time facial recognition checks, which incorporate Microsoft’s FACE API technology, have been in use by the ride hailing platform in the UK since March 2020.

Uber introduced the selfie identity checks ahead of another hearing over its licence renewal in London. That followed an earlier suspension by the city’s transport regulator, TfL, which has raised safety concerns over its operations for years — branding Uber “not fit and proper to hold a private hire operator licence” in a shock denial of its licence four years ago.

Despite losing its licence to operate in the UK capital all the way back in 2017, Uber has been able to operate in the city continuously as it has appealed the regulatory action.

It gained a provisional 15-month licence in 2018 — though not the full five year term. Later it got a two-month licence in 2019, with a laundry list of operational conditions from TfL — before once again being denied a full licence renewal in November 2019.

Then in September 2020 Uber was granted a licence renewal — but, again, only for 18 months. So to say Uber’s UK business has been under pressure over safety for years is putting it mildly.

The ADCU notes that in September 2020, when the Westminster Magistrates Court (most recently) renewed Uber’s license for London, it set a condition that the company must “maintain appropriate systems, processes and procedures to confirm that a driver using the app is an individual licensed by TfL and permitted by ULL to use the app”.

“This condition facilitated the introduction of harmful facial recognition systems,” the ADCU argues.

Earlier this year the ADCU and the WIE called for Microsoft to suspend Uber’s use of its B2B facial recognition technology — after finding multiple cases where drivers were mis-identified and went on to have their licence to operate revoked by TfL.

Now the union says its lawyers will argue that facial recognition systems, including those operated by Uber, are “inherently faulty and generate particularly poor accuracy results when used with people of color”.

Under the terms of Uber’s licence to operate in London the company reports failed driver identity checks to TfL — which can then revoke a driver’s licence, meaning he or she is unable to work as a private hire vehicle driver in the city.

The ride hailing giant also appears to use the same real-time facial verification identity check technology for both Uber drivers and Uber Eats couriers — even though the latter are delivering food, not ferrying passengers around. And in one letter seen by TechCrunch, in which TfL writes to an Uber driver to inform him that it is revoking his private hire licence, the regulator makes reference to information provided by Uber regarding the driver’s dismissal as an Uber Eats courier on account of a failed ID check carried out by Uber’s sister company.

That failed ID check as a food delivery courier then appears to be being used as grounds by TfL to justify revoking the same person’s private hire vehicle licence — on “public safety” grounds.

“It is recognized that the failed checks did not occur on a private hire operator’s booking platform or while undertaking any bookings. It is also the case that there does not appear to have been any evidence to suggest that this type of behavior has taken place on the booking platform of a licenced private hire vehicle operator. However, the information that has been provided indicates that you have been seen to fail identification checks that have been conducted,” writes TfL with some particularly tortuous logic.

“This type of activity being identified on any platform does suggest a propensity to behave in the manner that has been alleged,” it goes on, before adding: “When that is then considered in terms of a private hire driver, it does then have the potential to put the travelling public at risk.”

The letter concludes by informing the Uber driver that their licence is being revoked and providing deals of how they can appeal the decision.

Farrer told us that “several” of the Uber drivers the union is representing had their licences revoked by TfL after being dismissed by Uber for failing ID checks on Uber Eats which Uber then reported to TfL — which he called “disturbing”.

Commenting on the lawsuit in a statement, he added: “To secure renewal of their license in London, Uber introduced a flawed facial recognition technology which they knew would generate unacceptable failure rates when used against a workforce mainly composed of people of colour. Uber then doubled down on the problem by not implementing appropriate safeguards to ensure appropriate human review of algorithmic decision making.”

The ADCU’s legal representative, Paul Jennings, a partner at Bates Wells, described the cases as “enormously important” — and with AI “rapidly becoming prevalent in all aspects of employment” he suggested the challenge would establish “important principles”.

Reached for comment on the legal action, an Uber spokesperson claimed that the selfie ID check it uses features “robust human review” — telling us in a statement:

“Our Real-Time ID Check is designed to protect the safety and security of everyone who uses the Uber app by helping ensure the correct driver is behind the wheel. The system includes robust human review to make sure that this algorithm is not making decisions about someone’s livelihood in a vacuum, without oversight.”

The company prefers to refer to the technology it uses for these real-time ID checks as ‘facial verification’ (rather than facial recognition), while its claim of “robust” human review implies that no Uber or Uber Eats account is deactivated solely as a result of AI.

That’s important because under UK and EU law, individuals have a right not to be subject to solely automated decisions that have legal or similar effect on them. And algorithmic denial of employment would very likely meet that bar — hence Uber’s urging that its algorithmic identity checks do involve a human in the loop.

However the question of what constitutes ‘meaningful’ human review in this context is key — and something that courts will have to wrestle with at some point.

Asked what steps Uber has taken to assess the accuracy of its facial verification technology, Uber would not provide a public comment. But we understand that an internal Fairness Research team has carried out an assessment to see whether the Real-Time ID Check system performs differently based on skin color.

However we have not seen this internal research so we are unable to confirm its quality. Nor can we verify an associated claim that an “initial assessment” did not reveal “meaningful differences”.

Additionally, we understand Uber is working with Microsoft on ongoing fairness testing of the facial verification system — with the aim of improving general performance and accuracy.

Farrer told TechCrunch that the union has won at least 10 appeals in the Magistrates court against driver dismissals by TfL that cite Uber’s real-time ID checks. “With Imran, Uber and TfL have already admitted they got it wrong. But he was out of work for three months. No apology. No compensation,” he also said.

In other cases, Farrer said appeals have focused on whether the driver in question was ‘fit and proper’, which is the test TfL applies. For these, he said the union made subject access requests to Uber ahead of each hearing — asking for the driver’s real-time ID data and an explanation for the failed check. But Uber never provided the requested data.

“In many of the cases we got our costs,” Farrer also told us, adding: “This is unusual because public bodies have protection to do their job.” He went on to suggest that the judges had taken a dim view on hearing that Uber had not given the ADCU the requested data, and that TfL also either didn’t get the data from Uber — or too belatedly asked for data.

“At one Crown Court hearing the judge actually adjourned and asked for TfL’s Counsel to phone TfL and ask why Uber had not given them the data and if they ever expected to get it,” he added. “As you can see we eventually did get pictures for Pa and they are displayed in the Crowdjustice page — but we still cannot tell which of these pictures failed [Uber’s real-time ID check].”

TechCrunch asked Uber for a copy of its Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) for the Real-Time ID Check system — which should have considered the technology’s risks to individuals’ rights — but the company did not respond to our question. (We have asked to see a copy of this before — and have never been sent one.)

We have also asked TfL for a copy of the DPIA. Farrer told us that the regulator refused to release the document despite the ADCU making a Freedom of Information request for it.

At the time of writing TfL was not available for comment.

Asked for his view on why the regulator is so keen on the facial recognition checks, Farrer suggested that by getting Uber to carry out this sort of “self enforcement” it sets a defacto regulatory standard without TfL having to define an actual standard — which would require it to carry out proper due diligence on key details such as equality impact assessment.


Uber under pressure over facial recognition checks for drivers

Uber’s use of facial recognition technology for a driver identity system is being challenged in the UK where the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and Worker Info Exchange (WIE) have called for Microsoft to suspend the ride-hailing giant’s use of B2B facial recognition after finding multiple cases where drivers were mis-identified and went on to have their licence to operate revoked by Transport for London (TfL).

The union said it has identified seven cases of “failed facial recognition and other identity checks” leading to drivers losing their jobs and license revocation action by TfL.

When Uber launched the “Real Time ID Check” system in the UK, in April 2020, it said it would “verify that driver accounts aren’t being used by anyone other than the licensed individuals who have undergone an Enhanced DBS check”. It said then that drivers could “choose whether their selfie is verified by photo-comparison software or by our human reviewers”.

In one misidentification case the ADCU said the driver was dismissed from employment by Uber and his license was revoked by TfL. The union adds that it was able to assist the member to establish his identity correctly forcing Uber and TfL to reverse their decisions. But it highlights concerns over the accuracy of the Microsoft facial recognition technology — pointing out that the company suspended the sale of the system to US police forces in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.

Research has shown that facial recognition systems can have an especially high error rate when used to identify people of color — and the ADCU cites a 2018 MIT study which found Microsoft’s system can have an error rate as high as 20% (accuracy was lowest for dark skinned women).

The union said it’s written to the Mayor of London to demand that all TfL private hire driver license revocations based on Uber reports using evidence from its Hybrid Real Time Identification systems are immediately reviewed.

Microsoft has been contacted for comment on the call for it to suspend Uber’s licence for its facial recognition tech.

The ADCU said Uber rushed to implement a workforce electronic surveillance and identification system as part of a package of measures implemented to regain its license to operate in the UK capital.

Back in 2017, TfL made the shock decision not to grant Uber a licence renewal — ratcheting up regulatory pressure on its processes and maintaining this hold in 2019 when it again deemed Uber ‘not fit and proper’ to hold a private hire vehicle licence.

Safety and security failures were a key reason cited by TfL for withholding Uber’s licence renewal.

Uber has challenged TfL’s decision in court and it won another appeal against the licence suspension last year — but the renewal granted was for only 18 months (not the full five years). It also came with a laundry list of conditions — so Uber remains under acute pressure to meet TfL’s quality bar.

Now, though, Labor activists are piling pressure on Uber from the other direction too — pointing out that no regulatory standard has been set around the workplace surveillance technology that the ADCU says TfL encouraged Uber to implement. No equalities impact assessment has even been carried out by TfL, it adds.

WIE confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s filing a discrimination claim in the case of one driver, called Imran Raja, who was dismissed after Uber’s Real ID check — and had his license revoked by TfL.

His licence was subsequently restored — but only after the union challenged the action.

A number of other Uber drivers who were also misidentified by Uber’s facial recognition checks will be appealing TfL’s revocation of their licences via the UK courts, per WIE.

A spokeswoman for TfL told us it is not a condition of Uber’s licence renewal that it must implement facial recognition technology — only that Uber must have adequate safety systems in place.

The relevant condition of its provisional licence on ‘driver identity’ states:

ULL shall maintain appropriate systems, processes and procedures to confirm that a driver using the app is an individual licensed by TfL and permitted by ULL to use the app.

We’ve also asked TfL and the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office for a copy of the data protection impact assessment Uber says was carried before the Real-Time ID Check was launched — and will update this report if we get it.

Uber, meanwhile, disputes the union’s assertion that its use of facial recognition technology for driver identity checks risks automating discrimination because it says it has a system of manual (human) review in place that’s intended to prevent failures.

Albeit it accepts that that system clearly failed in the case of Raja — who only got his Uber account back (and an apology) after the union’s intervention.

Uber said its Real Time ID system involves an automated ‘picture matching’ check on a selfie that the driver must provide at the point of log in, with the system comparing that selfie with a (single) photo of them held on file. 

If there’s no machine match, the system sends the query to a three-person human review panel to conduct a manual check. Uber said checks will be sent to a second human panel if the first can’t agree. 

In a statement the tech giant told us:

“Our Real-Time ID Check is designed to protect the safety and security of everyone who uses the app by ensuring the correct driver or courier is using their account. The two situations raised do not reflect flawed technology — in fact one of the situations was a confirmed violation of our anti-fraud policies and the other was a human error.

“While no tech or process is perfect and there is always room for improvement, we believe the technology, combined with the thorough process in place to ensure a minimum of two manual human reviews prior to any decision to remove a driver, is fair and important for the safety of our platform.”

In two of the cases referred to by the ADCU, Uber said that in one instance a driver had shown a photo during the Real-Time ID Check instead of taking a selfie as required to carry out the live ID check — hence it argues it was not wrong for the ID check to have failed as the driver was not following the correct protocol.

In the other instance Uber blamed human error on the part of its manual review team(s) who (twice) made an erroneous decision. It said the driver’s appearance had changed and its staff were unable to recognize the face of the (now bearded) man who sent the selfie as the same person in the clean-shaven photo Uber held on file.

Uber was unable to provide details of what happened in the other five identity check failures referred to by the union.

It also declined to specify the ethnicities of the seven drivers the union says were misidentified by its checks.

Asked what measures it’s taking to prevent human errors leading to more misidentifications in future Uber declined to provide a response.

Uber said it has a duty to notify TfL when a driver fails an ID check — a step which can lead to the regulator suspending the license, as happened in Raja’s case. So any biases in its identity check process clearly risk having disproportionate impacts on affected individuals’ ability to work.

WIE told us it knows of three TfL licence revocations that relate solely to facial recognition checks.

“We know of more [UberEats] couriers who have been deactivated but no further action since they are not licensed by TfL,” it noted.

TechCrunch also asked Uber how many driver deactivations have been carried out and reported to TfL in which it cited facial recognition in its testimony to the regulator — but again the tech giant declined to answer our questions.

WIE told us it has evidence that facial recognition checks are incorporated into geo-location-based deactivations Uber carries out.

It said that in one case a driver who had their account revoked was given an explanation by Uber relating solely to location but TfL accidentally sent WIE Uber’s witness statement — which it said “included facial recognition evidence”.

That suggests a wider role for facial recognition technology in Uber’s identity checks vs the one the ride-hailing giant gave us when explaining how its Real Time ID system works. (Again, Uber declined to answer follow up questions about this or provide any other information beyond its on-the-record statement and related background points.)

But even just focusing on Uber’s Real Time ID system there’s the question of much say Uber’s human review staff actually have in the face of machine suggestions combined with the weight of wider business imperatives (like an acute need to demonstrate regulatory compliance on the issue of safety).

James Farrer, the founder of WIE, queries the quality of the human checks Uber has put in place as a backstop for facial recognition technology which has a known discrimination problem.

“Is Uber just confecting legal plausible deniability of automated decision making or is there meaningful human intervention,” he told TechCrunch. “In all of these cases, the drivers were suspended and told the specialist team would be in touch with them. A week or so typically would go by and they would be permanently deactivated without ever speaking to anyone.”

“There is research out there to show when facial recognition systems flag a mismatch humans have bias to confirm the machine. It takes a brave human being to override the machine. To do so would mean they would need to understand the machine, how it works, its limitations and have the confidence and management support to over rule the machine,” Farrer added. “Uber employees have the risk of Uber’s license to operate in London to consider on one hand and what… on the other? Drivers have no rights and there are in excess so expendable.”

He also pointed out that Uber has previously said in court that it errs on the side of customer complaints rather than give the driver benefit of the doubt. “With that in mind can we really trust Uber to make a balanced decision with facial recognition?” he asked.

Farrer further questioned why Uber and TfL don’t show drivers the evidence that’s being relied upon to deactivate their accounts — to given them a chance to challenge it via an appeal on the actual substance of the decision.

“IMHO this all comes down to tech governance,” he added. “I don’t doubt that Microsoft facial recognition is a powerful and mostly accurate tool. But the governance of this tech must be intelligent and responsible. Microsoft are smart enough themselves to acknowledge this as a limitation.

“The prospect of Uber pressured into surveillance tech as a price of keeping their licence… and a 94% BAME workforce with no worker rights protection from unfair dismissal is a recipe for disaster!”

The latest pressure on Uber’s business processes follows hard on the heels of a major win for Farrer and other former Uber drivers and labor rights activists after years of litigation over the company’s bogus claim that drivers are ‘self employed’, rather than workers under UK law.

On Tuesday Uber responded to last month’s Supreme Court quashing of its appeal saying it would now treat drivers as workers in the market — expanding the benefits it provides.

However the litigants immediately pointed out that Uber’s ‘deal’ ignored the Supreme Court’s assertion that working time should be calculated when a driver logs onto the Uber app. Instead Uber said it would calculate working time entitlements when a driver accepts a job — meaning it’s still trying to avoid paying drivers for time spent waiting for a fare.

The ADCU therefore estimates that Uber’s ‘offer’ underpays drivers by between 40%-50% of what they are legally entitled to — and has said it will continue its legal fight to get a fair deal for Uber drivers.

At an EU level, where regional lawmakers are looking at how to improve conditions for gig workers, the tech giant is now pushing for an employment law carve out for platform work — and has been accused of trying to lower legal standards for workers.

In additional Uber-related news this month, a court in the Netherlands ordered the company to hand over more of the data it holds on drivers, following another ADCU+WIE challenge. Although the court rejected the majority of the drivers’ requests for more data. But notably it did not object to drivers seeking to use data rights established under EU law to obtain information collectively to further their ability to collectively bargain against a platform — paving the way for more (and more carefully worded) challenges as Farrer spins up his data trust for workers.

The applicants also sought to probe Uber’s use of algorithms for fraud-based driver terminations under an article of EU data protection law that provides for a right not to be subject to solely automated decisions in instances where there is a legal or significant effect. In that case the court accepted Uber’s explanation at face value that fraud-related terminations had been investigated by a human team — and that the decisions to terminate involved meaningful human decisions.

But the issue of meaningful human invention/oversight of platforms’ algorithmic suggestions/decisions is shaping up to be a key battleground in the fight to regulate the human impacts of and societal imbalances flowing from powerful platforms which have both god-like view of users’ data and an allergy to complete transparency.

The latest challenge to Uber’s use of facial recognition-linked terminations shows that interrogation of the limits and legality of its automated decisions is far from over — really, this work is just getting started.

Uber’s use of geolocation for driver suspensions is also facing legal challenge.

While pan-EU legislation now being negotiated by the bloc’s institutions also aims to increase platform transparency requirements — with the prospect of added layers of regulatory oversight and even algorithmic audits coming down the pipe for platforms in the near future.

Last week the same Amsterdam court that ruled on the Uber cases also ordered India-based ride-hailing company Ola to disclose data about its facial-recognition-based ‘Guardian’ system — aka its equivalent to Uber’s Real Time ID system. The court said Ola must provided applicants with a wider range of data than it currently does — including disclosing a ‘fraud probability profile’ it maintains on drivers and data within a ‘Guardian’ surveillance system it operates.

Farrer says he’s thus confident that workers will get transparency — “one way or another”. And after years fighting Uber through UK courts over its treatment of workers his tenacity in pursuit of rebalancing platform power cannot be in doubt.


Uber wins latest London licence appeal

Uber has won its appeal against having its licence to operate withdrawn in London.

In today’s judgement the court decided it was satisfied with process improvements made by the ride-hailing company, including around its communication with the city’s transport regulator.

The new licence comes with 21 conditions, jointly suggested to the Magistrate by Uber and TfL.

However it’s still not clear how long Uber will be granted a licence for — with the judge wanting to hear more evidence before taking a decision.

We’ve reached out to Uber and TfL for comment.

The ride-sharing giant has faced a multi-year battle to have its licence reinstated after Transport for London, the city’s transport regulator, took the shock decision not to issue a renewal in 2017 — citing safety concerns and deeming Uber not “fit and proper” to hold a private hire operator licence.

It went on to win a provisional appeal back in 2018 — when a UK court granted it a 15-month licence to give it time to continue working on meeting TfL’s requirements. However last November the regulator once again denied a full licence renewal — raising a range of new safety issues.

Despite that Uber has been able to continue operating in London throughout the appeals process — albeit, with ongoing uncertainty over the future of its licence. Now it will be hoping this is in the past.

In the appeal, Uber’s key argument was it is now “fit and proper” to hold a licence — claiming it’s listened to the regulator’s concerns and learnt from errors, making major changes to address issues related to passenger safety.

For example Uber pointed to improvements in its governance and document review systems, including a freeze on drivers who had not taken a trip for an extended period; real-time driver ID verification; and new scrutiny teams and processes; as well as the launch of ‘Programme Zero’ — which aims to prevent all breaches of licence conditions.

It also argued system flaws were not widespread — claiming only 24 of the 45,000 drivers using the app had exploited its system to its knowledge.

It also argued it now cooperates effectively and proactively with TfL and police forces, denying it conceals any failures. Furthermore, it claimed denying its licence would have a “profound effect” on groups at risk of street harassment — such as women and ethnic minorities, as well as disabled people.

It’s certainly fair to say the Uber of 2020 has travelled some distance from the company whose toxic internal culture included developing proprietary software to try to thwart regulatory oversight and eventually led to a major change of guard of its senior management.

However it’s interesting the court has taken the step of choosing to debate what length of licence Uber should receive. So while it’s a win for Uber, there are still some watchful caveats.

Offering commentary on today’s ruling, Anna McCaffrey, a senior counsel for the law firm Taylor Wessing, highlighted this element of the judgement. “The Magistrates Court agreed that Uber had made improvements and addressed TfL safety concerns. However, the fact that the length of extension is up for debate, rather than securing Uber’s preferred five year licence, demonstrates that Uber will have to work hard to continue to prove to TfL and the Court that it has really changed. If not, Uber is likely to find itself back in Court facing the same battle next year,” she noted in a statement.

She also pointed out that a decision is still pending from the Supreme Court to “finally settle” the question as to whether Uber’s drivers are workers or self-employed — another long-running legal saga for Uber in the UK.

The company is also facing fresh legal challenges related to its algorithmic management of drivers. So there’s still plenty of work for its lawyers.

The App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU), meanwhile, offered a cautious welcome of the court’s decision to grant Uber’s licence renewal — given how many of its members are picking up jobs via its platform.

However the union also called for the mayor of London to break up what it dubbed Uber’s “monopoly” by imposing limits on the numbers of drivers who can register on its platform. In a statement, ADCU president, Yaseen Aslam, argued: “The reduced scale will give both Uber and Transport for London the breathing space necessary to ensure all compliance obligations -– including worker rights — are met in future.”

Update: Uber has now sent this statement — attributed to Jamie Heywood, regional general manager for Northern & Eastern Europe: “This decision is a recognition of Uber’s commitment to safety and we will continue to work constructively with TfL. There is nothing more important than the safety of the people who use the Uber app as we work together to keep London moving.”

Uber has again been denied licence renewal in London over safety risks

Two months after being given a two-month reprieve on its licence to operate in London, Uber has once again been denied a full renewal by the city’s transport regulator — which said today that it had found a “pattern of failures” which put “passenger safety and security at risk”.

Uber has confirmed it will appeal the decision.

The UK capital is a major European market for Uber, which claims to have 3.5 million users and 45,000 registered drivers in the city.

The ride-hailing giants’ troubles in London began in 2017 when Transport for London (TfL) made the shock decision to deny its licence renewal, citing a range of concerns including how Uber reported criminal offences; carried out background checks on drivers; and its use of proprietary software it developed that could be used to block regulatory oversight.

In the latest decision against Uber TfL concludes the company is not “fit and proper” to hold a private hire vehicle licence, saying it identified thousands of regulatory breaches — with a key issue being a change to Uber’s systems that allowed unauthorised drivers to upload their photos to other Uber driver accounts.

“This allowed [unauthorised drivers] to pick up passengers as though they were the booked driver, which occurred in at least 14,000 trips — putting passenger safety and security at risk,” TfL writes.

“This means all the journeys were uninsured and some passenger journeys took place with unlicensed drivers, one of which had previously had their licence revoked by TfL.”

It also identified another safety and security failure that allowed dismissed or suspended drivers to create an Uber account and carry passengers.

“TfL recognises the steps that Uber has put in place to prevent this type of activity. However, it is a concern that Uber’s systems seem to have been comparatively easily manipulated,” it adds.

The regulator says it identified further serious breaches, including several insurance-related issues. Some of these led it to prosecute Uber, earlier this year, for causing and permitting the use of vehicles without the correct hire or reward insurance in place.

While TfL highlights “a number of positive changes and improvements to [Uber’s] culture, leadership and systems”, since the company was granted a 15-month provisional licence by a magistrate in June 2018 — including noting that it has interacted with TfL in “a transparent and productive manner” — it concludes it cannot ignore the risks posed by “a pattern of failures” from “weak systems and processes”.

“This pattern of regulatory breaches led TfL to commission an independent assessment of Uber’s ability to prevent incidents of this nature happening again. This work has led TfL to conclude that it currently does not have confidence that Uber has a robust system for protecting passenger safety, while managing changes to its app,” it says.

Uber can continue to operate in London during the appeals process. So passengers will likely see no change in the short term. TfL says Uber has 21 days to file an appeal.

During the appeals process the company may also seek to implement changes to demonstrate to a magistrate that it is fit and proper by the time of the appeal hearing. So, again, it’s possible Uber could win another provisional licence in future, depending on the steps it takes to improve its systems. But there’s no doubt the regulator is in the driving seat at this point.

TfL says it will continue to “closely scrutinise” Uber during any continued operation, including checking it meets the 20 conditions it set out in September 2019.

“Particular attention will be paid to ensuring that the management have robust controls in place to manage changes to the Uber app so that passenger safety is not put at risk,” it adds.

Commenting in a statement, Helen Chapman, director of licensing, regulation and charging at TfL, said: “Safety is our absolute top priority. While we recognise Uber has made improvements, it is unacceptable that Uber has allowed passengers to get into minicabs with drivers who are potentially unlicensed and uninsured.

“It is clearly concerning that these issues arose, but it is also concerning that we cannot be confident that similar issues won’t happen again in future. If they choose to appeal, Uber will have the opportunity to publicly demonstrate to a magistrate whether it has put in place sufficient measures to ensure potential safety risks to passengers are eliminated. If they do appeal, Uber can continue to operate and we will closely scrutinise the company to ensure the management has robust controls in place to ensure safety is not compromised during any changes to the app.”

Responding to TfL’s decision in a statement, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern & Eastern Europe, Jamie Heywood, dubbed it “extraordinary and wrong”.

“We have fundamentally changed our business over the last two years and are setting the standard on safety. TfL found us to be a fit and proper operator just two months ago, and we continue to go above and beyond,” he said. “On behalf of the 3.5 million riders and 45,000 licensed drivers who depend on Uber in London, we will continue to operate as normal and will do everything we can to work with TfL to resolve this situation.”

On driver ID specifically, Heywood added: “Over the last two months we have audited every driver in London and further strengthened our processes. We have robust systems and checks in place to confirm the identity of drivers and will soon be introducing a new facial matching process, which we believe is a first in London taxi and private hire.”

This ride-hailing PR pitch shows platforms and digital campaign ‘dark arts’ want democracy to be pay to play

A UK PR firm pitching to run an account for Ola has proposed running a campaign to politicize ride-hailing as a tactic to shift regulations in its favor.

The approach suggests that, despite the appearance of ride-hailing platforms taking a more conciliatory position with regulators that are now wise to earlier startup tactics in this space, there remains a calculus involving realpolitik, propaganda and high-level lobbying between companies that want to enter or expand in markets, and those who hold the golden tickets to do so.

In 2017 Estonia-based ride-hailing startup Taxify tried to launch in London ahead of regulatory approval, for example, but city authorities clamped down straight away. It was only able to return to the UK capital 21 months later (now known as Bolt).

In Western markets ride-hailing companies are facing old and new regulatory roadblocks that are driving up costs and creating barriers to growth. In some instances unfavorable rule changes have even led companies to pull out of cities or regions all together. Even as there are ongoing questions around the employment classification of the drivers these platforms depend on to deliver a service.

The PR pitch, made by a Tufton Street-based PR firm called Public First, suggests Ola tackle legislative friction in UK regions with a policy influence campaign targeted at local voters.

The SoftBank-backed Indian ride-hailing startup launched in the U.K. in August, 2018 and currently offers services in a handful of regional locations including South Wales, Merseyside and the West Midlands. Most recently it gained a licence to operate in London, and last month launched services in Coventry and Warwick — saying then that passengers in the UK had clocked up more than one million trips since its launch.

Manchester is also on its target list — and features as a focus in the strategy proposal — though an Ola spokesman told us it has no launch date for the city yet. The company met with Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, during a trade mission to India last month.

The Public First proposal suggests a range of strategies for Ola to get local authorities and local politicians on-side, and thus avoid problems in potential and future operations, including the use of engagement campaigns and digital targeting to mobilize select coalitions around politicized, self-serving talking points — such as claims that public transport is less safe and convenient; or that air quality improves if fewer people drive into the city — in order to generate pressure on regulators to change licensing rules.

Another suggestion is to position the company less as a business, and more as an organization representing tens of thousands of time-poor people.

Public First advocates generally for the use of data- and technology-driven campaign methods, such as microtargeted digital advertising, as more effective than direct lobbying of local government officials — suggesting using digital tools to generate a perception that an issue is politicized will encourage elected representatives to do the heavy lifting of pressuring regulators because they’ll be concerned about losing votes.

The firm describes digital campaign elements as “crucial” to this strategy.

“Through a small, targeted online digital advertising campaign in both cities, local councillors’ email inboxes would begin to fill with requests from a number of different people (students, businesses, and other members of [a commuter advocacy group it proposes setting up to act as a lobby vehicle]) for the local authority to change its approach on local taxi licensing — in effect, to make it easier for Ola to launch,” it offers as a proposed strategy for building momentum behind Ola in Manchester and Liverpool.

Public First confirmed it made the pitch to Ola but told us: “This was merely a routine, speculative proposal of the sort we generate all the time as we meet people.”

“Ola Cabs has no relationship whatsoever with Public First,” it added.

A spokesperson for Ola also confirmed that it does not have a business relationship with Public First. “Ola has never had a relationship with Public First, does not currently have one and nor will it in the future,” the spokesman told us.

“Ola’s approach in the UK has been defined by working closely and collaborating with local authorities and we are committed to being fully licensed in every area we operate,” he added, suggesting the strategy it’s applying is the opposite of what’s being proposed.

We understand that prior to Public First pitching their ideas to a person working in Ola’s comms division, Ola’s director of legal, compliance and regulation, Andrew Winterton, met with the firm over coffee — in an introductory capacity. But that no such tactics were discussed.

It appears that, following first contact, Public First took the initiative to draw up the strategy suggesting politicizing ride-hailing in key target regions which it emailed to Winterton but only presented to a more junior Ola employee in a follow-up meeting the legal director did not attend.

Ola has built a major ride-hailing business in its home market of India — by way of $3.8BN in funding and aggressive competition. Since 2018 it has been taking international steps to fuel additional growth. In the U.K. its approach to date has been fairly low key, going to cities and regional centers outside of high-profile London first, as well as aiming to serve areas with big Indian populations to help recruit riders and drivers.

It’s a strategy that’s likely been informed by being able to view the track record of existing ride-hailing players — and avoid Uber-style regulatory blunders.

The tech giant was dealt a major shock by London’s transport regulator in 2017, when TfL denied it a licence renewal — citing concerns over Uber’s approach to passenger safety and corporate governance, including querying its explanation for using proprietary software that could be used to evade regulatory oversight.

The Uber story looks to be the high water mark for blitzscaling startup tactics that relied on ignoring or brute forcing regulators in the ride-hailing category. Laws and local authorities have largely caught up. The name of the game now is finding ways to get regulators on side.

Propaganda as a service

The fact that strategic proposals such as Public First’s to Ola are considered routine enough to put into a speculative pitch is interesting, given how the lack of transparency around the use of online tools for spreading propaganda is an issue that’s now troubling elected representatives in parliaments all over the world. Tools such as those offered by Facebook’s ad platform.

In Facebook’s case the company provides only limited visibility into who is running political and issue-based ads on its platform. The targeting criteria being used to reach individuals is also not comprehensively disclosed.

Some of the company’s own employees recently went public with concerns that its advanced targeting and behavioral-tracking tools make it “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech”, as they put it.

At the same time, platforms providing a conduit for corporate interests to cheaply and easily manufacture ‘politicized’ speech looks to be another under-scrutinized risk for democratic societies.

Among the services Public First lists on its website are “policy development”, “qualitative and quantitative opinion research”, “issues-based campaigns”, “coalition-building” and “war gaming”. (Here, for example, is a piece of work the firm carried out for Google — where its analysis-for-hire results in a puffy claim that the tech giant’s digital services are worth at least $70BN in annual “economic value” for the UK.)

Public First’s choice of office location, in Tufton Street, London, is also notable as the area is home to an interlinked hub of right-leaning think tanks, such as the free market Center for Policy Studies and pro-Brexit Initiative for Free Trade. These are lobby vehicles dressed up as policy wonks which put out narratives intended to influence public opinion and legislation in a particular direction without it being clear who their financial backers are.

Some of the publicity strategies involved in this kind of work appear to share similarities with tactics used by Big Tobacco to lobby against anti-smoking legislation, or fossil fuel interests’ funding of disinformation and astroturfing operations to create a perception of doubt around consensus climate science.

“A lot of what used to get sold in this space essentially was access [to policymakers],” says one former public relations professional, speaking on background. “What you’re seeing an increasingly amount of now is the ‘technification’ of that process. Everyone’s using those kinds of tools — clearly in terms of trying to understand public sentiment better and that kind of thing… But essentially what they’re saying is we can set up a set of politicized issues so that they can benefit you. And that’s an interesting change. It’s not just straight defence and attack; promote your brand vs another. It’s ‘okay, we’re going to change the politics around an issue… in order to benefit your outcome’. And that’s fairly sophisticated and interesting.”

Mat Hope, editor of investigative journalism outlet DeSmog — which reports on climate-related misinformation campaigns — has done a lot of work focused on Tufton Street specifically, looking at the impact the network’s ‘policy-costumed’ corporate talking points have had on UK democracy.

“There is a set of organisations based out of offices in and around 55 Tufton Street in Westminster, just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, which in recent years have had an outsized impact on British democracy. Many of the groups were at the forefront of the Leave campaign, and are now pushing for a hard or no-deal Brexit,” he told us, noting that Public First not only has offices nearby but that its founders and employees “have strong ties to other organisations based there”.

“The groups regularly lobby politicians in the interests of specific companies or big industry through the guise of grassroots or for-the-people campaigns,” he added. “One way they do this is through targeting adverts or social media posts, using groups with benign sounding names. This makes it hard to trace the campaign back to any particular company, and gives the issue an impression of grassroots support that is, on the whole, artificial.”

Platform power without responsibility

Ad platforms such as Facebook which profit by profiling people offer cheap yet powerful tools for corporate interests to identify and target highly specific sub-sets of voters. This is possible thanks to the vast amounts of personal data they collect — an activity that’s finally coming under significant regulatory scrutiny — and custom ad tools such as lookalike audiences, all of which enables behavioral microtargeting at the individual user/voter level.

Lookalike audiences is a powerful ad product that allows Facebook advertisers to upload customer data yet also leverage the company’s pervasive people-profiling to access new audiences that they do not hold data on but who have similar characteristics to their target. These so-called lookalike audiences can be tightly geotargeted, as well as zeroed in on granular interests and demographics. It’s not hard to see how such tools can be applied to selectively hit up only the voters most likely to align with a business’ interests.

The upshot is that an online advertiser is able to pay little to tap into the population-scale reach and vast data wealth of platform giants — turning firehose power against individual voters who they deem — via focus group work or other voter data analysis — to be aligned with a corporate agenda. The platform becomes a propaganda machine for manufacturing the appearance of broad public engagement and grassroots advocacy for a self-interested policy change.

The target voter, meanwhile, is most likely none the wiser about why they’re seeing politicized messaging. It’s that lack of transparency that makes the activity inherently anti-democratic.

The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee raised Facebook’s lookalike audiences as a risk to democracy during a recent enquiry into online disinformation and digital campaigning. It went on to recommend an outright ban on political microtargeting to lookalike audiences online. Though the UK government has so far failed to act on that or its fuller suite of recommendations. (Nor has Facebook responded to increasingly loud calls from politicians and civic society to ban political and issue ads altogether.)

Even a code of conduct published by the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) emphasizes transparency — with member organizations committing to “be open and transparent in declaring their name, organisation and the interest they represent”. (Albeit, the IPRA’s member list is not itself public.)

While online targeting of social media users remains a major problem for democracies, on account of the lack of transparency and individual consent to targeting (or, indeed, to data-based profiling), in recent years we’ve also seen more direct efforts by companies to use their own technology tools to generate voter pressure.

Examples such as ride-hailing giant Uber which, under its founding CEO, Travis Kalanick, became well known for a ‘push button’ approach to mobilizing its user base by sending calls to action to lobby against unfavorable regulatory changes.

Airbnb has also sought to use its platform-reach to beat against local authority rule changes that threaten its ‘home sharing’ business model.

However it’s the opaque tech-fuelled targeting enabled by ad platforms like Facebook that’s far more problematic for democracies as it allows vested interests to generate self-interested pressure remotely — including from abroad — while remaining entirely shielded from view.

Fixing this will require regulatory muscle to enforce existing laws around personal data collection (at least where such laws exist) — and doing so in a way that prevents microtargeting from being the cheap advertising default. Democracies should not allow their citizens to be mirrored in the data because it sets them up to be hollowed out; their individuals aggregated, classified and repackaged as all-you-can-eat attention units for whoever is paying.

And likely also legislation to set firm boundaries around the use of political and campaigning/issue ads online. Turning platform power against the individual is inherently asymmetrical. It’s never going to be a fair fight. So fair ground rules for digital political campaigning — and a proper oversight regime to enforce them — are absolutely essential.

Another democratic tonic is transparency. Which means raising awareness about tech-fuelled tactics that are designed to generate and exploit data-based asymmetries in order to hack and manipulate public opinion. Such skewed stuff only really works when the target is oblivious to what’s afoot. In that respect, every little disclosure of these ‘dark arts’ and the platforms that enable them provides a much-needed counter boost for critical thinking and democracy.

Ola gets a taxi license in London and plans to launch services in September

London is one of the world’s biggest markets for consumers that travel using ride-hailing services. Is it now also becoming one of the most crowded when it comes to the companies offering the transportation, too? Today, India’s Ola confirmed that it is the latest of the wave of app-based ride-hailing providers to receive a license to operate in London. A spokesperson told TechCrunch that Ola expects to kick off its services two months from now, in September.

“Ola has been granted a PHV operator license by TFL,” an Ola spokesperson said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “London is one of the world’s most iconic cities and hosts a progressive mobility environment.  We couldn’t be more excited to bring Ola to London in the time ahead! We are looking forward to building world-class mobility offerings for London, by collaborating with drivers, riders, the government and local authorities. Londoners will hear more from us closer to our launch in the city, as we get ready to serve them.”

Ola’s international push is an interesting shift for the company, which (like Lyft) was one of the early ride-hailing startups to commit to a strong focus as a regional leader at a time when its arch competitor Uber was burning hundreds of millions of dollars to expand internationally in multiple markets around the world.

And the news of Ola’s London license is not the only international news for the company this week: it comes at the same time that Ola Electric, the company’s spun-out electric vehicle business, is hinting that it will soon to be coming to Latin America.

Ola launched in the UK in 2018 and currently operates ride-hailing services in five regions that cover several of the UK’s bigger cities: South Wales (Cardiff, Newport and Vale of Glamorgan), the South West (Bath, Bristol, Exeter, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire), Merseyside (Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens and The Wirral), West Midlands (Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton) and Reading.

London is a significant addition to that list for a couple of reasons. One is because of its size, against which the rest of that list is dwarfed; and two is because Transport for London (TfL), the city’s transportation regulator, has over the years proven to be a strict custodian when it comes to issuing licenses to taxi companies, and subsequently enforcing the operating rules that it sets for them — not least because of the lobbying of the city’s black cab drivers, who have staged numerous protests over Uber’s practices:

London’s black cab drivers block Whitehall during a demonstration over the regulation private hire cars using the Uber app in London on April 6, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

TfL’s actions have led to one provider, Bolt (née Taxify), shutting down its service for 22 months before starting up again last month. Prior to that, Uber found itself in legal hot water, too, when TfL refused to renew its license unless it drastically changed its practices. (Today, Uber operates under a provisional permit as TfL continues to monitor it in competition with other providers.)

The news of Ola getting a London operating license comes at a time when the company — backed by nearly $4 billion from investors that include Didi, Softbank, Accel, Sequoia, Kia and nearly 60 others — appears to be making a stronger international push after years of building its service in India, which accounts for the vast majority of the 125 million customers that have taken trips with Ola to date.

Going outside of India’s borders is not the only significant expansion Ola is making right now. The company’s spun-out electric vehicle business, Ola Electric, yesterday announced that it had raised $250 million from Softbank at a $1 billion valuation. While one reason for building Ola Electric is to help meet demand for lower emissions in India, a second track is to use that EV business to take Ola abroad — and specifically to Latin America, according to this exchange between Softbank International CEO and group COO Marcelo Claure and Ola’s founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal.

An Ola spokesperson said that for now, in London the focus will be on rolling out a more standard service akin to what Ola provides in the UK today, and also what you get today from other London ride-hailing providers like Uber, Bolt and many smaller mini-cab firms that build up networks of drivers who work as contractors on the service using their own vehicles.

In India, Ola is the dominant ride-hailing service provider. Other markets where it operates outside of its home country are Australia (where it has services in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra and the Gold Coast), and New Zealand (Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch).


Uber loses another appeal against drivers’ rights in UK

Uber has lost another appeal against a landmark 2016 UK employment tribunal ruling that found a group of drivers to be workers, rather than self-employed, meaning they’re entitled to benefits such as holiday pay and the National Minimum Wage.

The court of appeal today upheld previous decisions classifying the drivers as workers.

Although the ruling was not unanimous and Uber has been granted permission to appeal direct to the Supreme Court.

Commenting on the ruling in a statement Uber said:

This decision was not unanimous and does not reflect the reasons why the vast majority of drivers choose to use the Uber app. We have been granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court and will do so.

Almost all taxi and private hire drivers have been self-employed for decades, long before our app existed. Drivers who use the Uber app make more than the London Living Wage and want to keep the freedom to choose if, when and where they drive. If drivers were classified as workers they would inevitably lose some of the freedom and flexibility that comes with being their own boss.

The original tribunal dismissed Uber’s argument that its platform merely supplies drivers with “business opportunities” — calling it a “pure fiction which bears no relation to the real dealings and relationships between the parties”.

But Uber points out that one of the appeals court judges, Lord Justice Underhill, expressed the view that the relationship it argued for “is neither unrealistic nor artificial”, accepting it being “in accordance with a well-recognised model for relationships in the private hire car business”.

The company also points to a number of changes to its business since the 2016 ruling, such as offering insurance cover for drivers.

“Over the last two years we’ve made many changes to give drivers even more control over how they use the app, alongside more security through sickness, maternity and paternity protections. We’ll keep listening to drivers and introduce further improvements,” its statement adds.

On the other side, co-lead claimant James Farrar, a former Uber driver who is now chair of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), welcomed the ruling — but also criticized Uber for “delaying inevitable changes to its business model”

In a statement Farrar said:

I am delighted today’s ruling brings us closer to the ending Uber’s abuse of precarious workers made possible by tactics of contract trickery, psychological manipulation and old-fashioned bullying. However, I am dismayed that implementation of worker status for drivers is further delayed while Uber seeks yet another appeal. This is nothing more than a cynical ploy to delay inevitable changes to its business model while it pursues a record breaking $120 billion stock market flotation. It’s time for Uber to come clean with all its stakeholders and abide by the decision of the courts.

Fellow co-lead claimant, and secretary of the IWGB’s United Private Hire Drivers branch, Yaseen Aslam, also expressed frustration at the protracted legal fight — writing:

I’m delighted with today’s ruling, but frustrated that the process has dragged on for over three years. It cannot be left to precarious workers like us to bring companies like Uber to account and despite the personal price we have had to pay, we are the lucky ones. We know of many that are under such hardship, that it would be unimaginable for them to take a multi-billion pound company to court. It is now time for the government and the Mayor of London to act and stop letting companies like Uber take them for a ride.

Uber lost its first appeal against the 2016 tribunal ruling a year ago but vowed to keep on appealing.

At the same time unions are keeping up the pressure on the ride-hailing giant, calling a drivers strike two months ago and urging Uber to immediately apply the tribunal judgement — and implement “employment conditions that respect worker rights for drivers, including the payment of at least the minimum wage and paid holidays”.

Uber has previously told policymakers that if it was required to pay such benefits to the circa 50,000 drivers operating on its platform in the UK it would cost its business “tens of millions” of pounds.

Commenting on today’s decision, Rachel Farr, a senior professional support lawyer in the employment, pensions & mobility group at Taylor Wessing, suggested the judgement could have ramifications for other gig economy platforms, bolstering those that argue such workers “deserve a better deal”.

Though she also emphasized the case-by-case nature of employment classification decisions.

“This decision will have an impact both across the gig economy and in more traditional sectors and will give encouragement to claimants in other cases which are awaiting a hearing or stayed pending the outcome,” she said in a statement. “But just because Uber lost, it doesn’t mean that others will: Each case will be considered on its specific facts, including the contractual terms between the parties and what actually happens in practice.”

Food delivery startup Deliveroo, for example, has so far prevailed in UK courts against union-backed attempts to gain collective bargaining rights by challenging its classification of couriers as independent contractors.

Last year a UK employment tribunal judged that Deliveroo riders could not be considered workers because they had a genuine right to find a substitute to do their job for them.

At the same time the government has been consulting on updating employment law to take account of tech-fuelled changes to working patterns. And earlier this week it set out a labor market reform package — billing it as a major upgrade to workplace rights.

Although unions dubbed the plan heavy on spin and weak on substance, reiterating accusations that gig economy giants are getting fat by exploiting workers.

Nor are unions the sole critics of pay and conditions in the gig economy. Reacting to the Uber decision today, Frank Field MP — who has conducted an inquiry into gig economy pay and conditions (and whose report on Deliveroo likened its asymmetrical model to 20th century dockyards) — dubbed it “another stunning victory for workers against the exploitation and poverty wages that stem from bogus self-employment in the gig economy”.

“The Government’s job now is to ensure justice is delivered for workers all year round, not just at Christmas,” he added.

This week the government said it’s committed to legislate to improve the clarity of the employment status tests — to “reflect the reality of the modern working relationships” — which could have major implications for platform giants like Uber.

Although at this stage it’s not clear what the reformed employment tests will look like, nor how its approach might end up redrawing the line for workers. So there’s much tbc there.

“The long-drawn history of the Uber case shows that the current law is not easy for businesses and those who work for them to understand. Clarifying such a complex area of law is easier said than done and it remains to be seen what this promise will actually mean,” noted TaylorWessing’s Farr.

“However, what is certain is that there is an evolving consciousness around the nature of work within an increasingly flexible and digitalised economy. The future of work will change and employers sticking to arguably outdated relationships with their employees are likely to be left behind.”

Congestion charge looming

In other news today that’s also likely to impact Uber’s business, London’s mayor and transport regulator, TfL, have announced they will lift the congestion charge exemption for private hire vehicles (PHVs), as part of a strategy to tackle pollution and congestion in the city.

From April 8 only zero emission-capable vehicles will be exempt from the charge in London.

PHVs that are not wheelchair accessible will also have their exemption removed. So even Uber drivers using Prius (or similar) electric hybrid vehicles will still have to pay the charge from early next year.

The change of policy, which follows a public consultation, is expected to reduce the number of PHVs circulating in London’s Congestion Charging Zone by up to 8,000 per day.

The mayor’s target is a 65% reduction in taxi emissions by 2025 with the stated aim of protecting the health of Londoners.

Air toxicity in the UK capital has been exceeding legal limits for years, coinciding with a big rise in the number of PHVs on London’s streets after Uber’s 2012 launch kicked off the ride-hailing craze.

License caps and CCTV among ride-hailing rule changes urged in report to UK gov’t

Uber and similar services could be facing caps on the number of licenses for vehicles that can operate ride-hailing services in London and other UK cities under rule changes being recommended to the government.

CCTV being universally installed inside licensed taxis and private hire vehicles for safety purposes is another suggestion.

A working group in the UK’s Department for Transport has published a report urging a number of changes intended to modernize the rules around taxis and private hire vehicles to take account of app-based technology changes which have piled extra pressure on already long outdated rules.

In addition to suggesting that local licensing authorities should have the power to cap vehicle licenses, the report includes a number of other recommendations that could also have an impact on ride-hailing businesses, such as calling for drivers to be able to speak and write English to a standard that would include being able to deal with “emergency and other challenging situations”; and suggesting CCTV should be universally installed in both taxis and PHVs (“subject to strict data protection measures”) — to mitigate safety concerns for passengers and drivers.

The report supports maintaining the current two-tier system, so keeping a distinction between ‘plying for hire’ and ‘prebooking’, although it notes that technological advancement has “blurred the distinction between the two trades” — and so suggests the introduction of a statutory definition of both.

“This definition should include reviewing the use of technology and vehicle ‘clustering’ as well as ensuring taxis retain the sole right to be hailed on streets or at ranks. Government should convene a panel of regulatory experts to explore and draft the definition,” it suggests.

Legislation for national minimum standards for taxi and PHV licensing — for drivers, vehicles and operators — is another recommendation, though with licensing authorities left free to set additional higher standards if they wish.

The report, which has 34 recommendations in all, also floats the idea that how companies treat drivers, in terms of pay and working conditions, should be taken into account by licensing authorities when they are determining whether or not to grant a license.

The issues of pay and exploitation by gig economy platform operators has risen up the political agenda in the UK in recent years — following criticism over safety and a number of legal challenges related to employment rights, such as a 2016 employment tribunal ruling against Uber. (Its first appeal also failed.)

“The low pay and exploitation of some, but not all, drivers is a source of concern,” the report notes. “Licensing authorities should take into account any evidence of a person or business flouting employment law, and with it the integrity of the National Living Wage, as part of their test of whether that person or business is ‘fit and proper’ to be a PHV or taxi operator.”

UK MP Frank Field, who this summer published a critical report on working conditions for Deliveroo riders, said the recommendations in the working group’s report put Uber “on notice”.

“In my view, operators like Uber will need to initiate major improvements in their drivers’ pay and conditions if they are to be deemed ‘fit and proper’,” he said in a response statement. “The company has been put on notice by this report.”

Though the report’s recommendation on this front do not go far enough for some. Also responding in a statement, the IWGB UPHD’s branch chair, James Farrar — who was one of the former Uber drivers who successfully challenged the company at an employment tribunal — criticized the lack of specific minimum wage guarantees for drivers.

“While the report has some good recommendations, it fails to deal with the most pressing issue for minicab drivers — the chronic violation of minimum wage laws by private hire companies such as Uber,” he said. “By proposing to give local authorities the power to cap vehicle licenses rather than driver licenses, the recommendations risk giving more power to large fleet owners like Addison Lee, while putting vulnerable workers in an even more precarious position.

“Just days after the New York City Council took concrete action to guarantee the minimum wage, this report falls short of what’s needed to tackle the ongoing abuses of companies operating in the so-called ‘gig economy’.”

We’ve reached out to Uber for comment on the report.

Field added that he would be pushing for additional debate in parliament on the issues raised and to “encourage the government to safeguard drivers’ living standards by putting this report into action”.

“In the meantime, individual licensing authorities have an important part to play by following New York’s lead in using their licensing policies to guarantee living wage rates for drivers,” he also said.

London’s transport regulator, TfL, has been lobbying for licensing authorities to be given the power cap the number of private hire vehicles in circulation for several years, as the popularity of ride-hailing has led to a spike in for-hire car numbers on London’s streets, making it more difficult for TfL to manage knock-on issues such as congestion and air quality (which are policy priorities for London’s current mayor).

And while TfL can’t itself (yet) impose an overall cap on PHV numbers it has proposed and enacted a number of regulatory tweaks, such as English language proficiency tests for drivers — changes that companies such as Uber have typically sought to push back against.

Earlier this year TfL also published a policy statement, setting out a safety-first approach to regulating ride-sharing. And, most famously, it withdrew Uber’s licence to operate in 2017.

Though the company has since successfully appealed, after making a number of changes to how it operates in the UK, gaining a provisional 15-month license to operate in London this summer. But clearly any return to Uber’s ‘bad old days‘ would be dealt very short shrift.

In the UK primary legislation would be required to enable local licensing authorities to be able to cap PHV licenses themselves. But the government is now being urged to do so by the DfT’s own working group, ramping up the pressure for it act — though with the caveat that any such local caps should be subject to “a public interest test” to prove need.

“This can help authorities to solve challenges around congestion, air quality and parking and ensure appropriate provision of taxi and private hire services for passengers, while maintaining drivers’ working conditions,” the report suggests.

Elsewhere, the report recommends additional changes to rules to improve access to wheelchair accessible vehicles; beef up enforcement against those that flout rules; as well as to support disability awareness training for drivers.

The report also calls on the government to urgently review the evidence and case for restricting the number of hours that taxi and PHV drivers can drive on the same safety grounds that restrict hours for bus and lorry drivers.

It also suggests a mandatory national database of all licensed taxi and PHV drivers, vehicles and operators, be established — to support stronger enforcement, generally, across all its recommended rule tweaks.

It’s not yet clear how the government will respond to the report, nor whether it will end up taking forward all or only some of the recommendations.

Although it’s under increased pressure to act to update regulations in this area, with the working group critically flagging ministers’ failure to act following a Law Commission review the government commissioned, back in 2011, writing: “It is deeply regrettable that the Government has not yet responded to the report and draft bill which the Commission subsequently published in 2014. Had the government acted sooner the concerns that led to the formation of this Group may have been avoided.”