The state of California is set to pounce, so—big surprise!—Uber is playing Silicon Valley’s favorite get out of jail card: the “platform defense.” As in, “Judge, I couldn’t have committed the crime, I was a platform at the time.”
In the process, however, Uber may have helped energize critics who insist that Big Tech companies be held to account for their toxic negligence.
Quick backstory: California’s legislature this week passed, and Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign, a landmark bill designed to protect, among others, Uber and Lyft drivers—workers who punch the clock every day for employers, but are nonetheless treated as independent contractors. You know, as if the drivers are just a bunch of free agents who pick up customers as part of passenger-moving business plan they drew up and have begun executing.
The measure, called AB5, would instead require that a company treat its workers as employees if they exert control over how they perform their tasks or if their work is part of the company’s regular business. (And they certainly do.) The idea is to distinguish between workers who make the company tick and workers who are genuinely independent and are genuinely contracted to do sideline work.
The change in status mandated by the law would mean that the drivers—Uber and Lyft employ about 220,000 in California alone—be eligible for unemployment insurance and family leave, earn minimum wage and overtime, and have bargaining rights. By one estimate, Uber would need to spend $500 million to comply with the new law.
In the face of such an attention-focusing cost estimate, Uber’s top lawyer, Tony West, proffered an ingenious defense: The company’s drivers aren’t employees, even under the proposed new law, because Uber’s main business isn’t driving people around. The company, he told reporters on Wednesday, “is serving as a technology platform for several different types of digital marketplaces.” (Uber also offers food and freight delivery, along with rental bicycles and scooters.) Thus, West said, the whole ride-hailing project would fall “outside the course of Uber’s usual business,” as the law stipulates.
This peculiar definition of Uber’s business becomes important because the law was written to permit companies to hire genuine independent contractors—like the people who come by for a couple of days to paint the bathrooms a new color. Or, um, freelance journalists, who were among those getting exemptions.
West took to Twitter to challenge reporters who interpreted his claim to mean that Uber was preparing not to comply with the law, should the governor sign it. To The New York Times, whose headline read “Uber Says It Is Not Subject to California Gig-Worker Law,” he replied: “This is completely wrong. @Uber will absolutely comply with the law—but the law does not ‘require contract workers to be reclassified as employees.’ I made that clear on a call today with your reporters.” Uber is a platform company, not a ride-hailing company—that’s their story and they’re sticking with it.
In reply to West, a New York Times reporter, Noam Schieber, posted on Twitter a snippet of dialog from a New York court case in which an Uber lawyer made this argument before a judge:
If you insist that drivers aren’t key to your business, apparently you end up making some bizarre U-turns. Yet Uber isn’t alone in denying in public what is obvious to anyone with a passing interest.
By the same token, Facebook and Google insist they aren’t publishers. They are platforms, which publish works and apply algorithms so that people are sure to find what they want. White nationalism? Anti-vaccination pseudoscience? A publisher might care about spreading such material, but they aren’t that. They’re platforms, remember?
Airbnb isn’t a hotel. Do its hosts discriminate? Does it wreak havoc on neighborhoods? A hotel might be required to have zero tolerance about such abuses. A platform can shrug its shoulders.
YouTube isn’t a TV channel. Are young children marketed to with tawdry advertising? Do recommended videos encourage anger and isolation? A TV channel might care, or be required to care. But a platform? Oh well.
And now we learn that Uber isn’t a hired car company, but a platform. Do the drivers live in poverty? Are they overworked? An employer is invested in the welfare of its workers and can be held to account by unions and government regulations. But a platform? That’s another word for the marketplace, and the marketplace doesn’t believe in tears.
There is a reason that some people call Silicon Valley a font of cruelty. The platform defense seems like an easy justification for turning your eyes away from social destruction. But even more insidious is the trashing of basic, time-tested standards for relationships, whether between news tellers or storytellers and their audience, between hosts and their guests, between employers and their employees.
The background to Uber’s resistance to treating drivers as employees are reports that its endgame is to run a fleet of driverless cars; drivers are just a stopgap. Getting close to them now, I suppose, will make saying goodbye that much harder.
In a recent review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers, Andrew Ferguson writes that he is surprised Gladwell is focused on the harms that come from the fact that people, even strangers, tend to trust each other. “One unfortunate side effect, which Gladwell considers at great length, is that we are correspondingly ill-equipped to detect liars,” Ferguson writes. “Lucky for us, most people tell the truth most of the time. Our faulty built-in lie detectors seem a small price to pay for what is otherwise an indispensable social lubricant.”