The algorithms that underlie most Silicon Valley bigwigs are usually locked up in the name of “protecting trade secrets,” but that’s an excuse that’s starting to wear a little thin in recent months. Maybe it’s because these companies are that much harder to regulate or compete against when we don’t ask them to reveal their respective secret sauces. Maybe it’s because these secret sauces control the incomes of a bigger and bigger chunk of small business owners and gig workers alike. Maybe it’s because they’re found to be biased in all sorts of ways, and hiding the specifics in the name of “trade secrets” only ends up hurting the people who use the platform.
All of these issues came to a head this week when four Uber drivers based in the UK filed suit against the company’s European branch in an Amsterdam District court on Monday, on the grounds that the company’s refusal to share driver data with, well, drivers, is technically a breach of European data protection laws. If this group can get Uber to cough up the data in question, it could offer an unprecedented window into the way the company algorithmically profiles both the EU-based and US-based drivers on its platform — unfairly or otherwise.
To give a bit of background, the four drivers behind the suit are members of the App Drives & Couriers Union — or ADCU for short — a group that’s working with a nonprofit called the Worker Info Exchange in the hopes of collecting app data on drivers that can be used for, say, collective bargaining further down the line.
According to the docket, all four of the drivers tried asking Uber for the data that was collected by their Uber Driver app, which doesn’t only collect data from, say, a given Uber ride, but collects data on everything from acceleration to location during every car trip the driver makes, even if it’s made without a passenger. In total, the docket describes more than 26 categories of data, which, on paper at least, is mostly crunched together to assess supply and demand, and figure out what the going rates should be for a given Uber ride in a given neighbourhood on a given day.
But as the docket describes, some of this data is also used to profile the drivers in question. As the docket explains, Uber keeps a tightly guarded profile of each driver on the platform, and uses metrics like a driver’s arrival times and ride rating to make notes about their “level of professionalism” or “navigational skills.” When the four UK drivers behind the suit asked Uber to cough up this data — and more — expecting that the company would abide under Europe’s hefty data laws — none of them got any of this profiling data back. What’s worse, only two of them got any data back at all, which means Uber, in this case, is one of those tech companies that thinks it can get away with ignoring GDPR. And like those tech companies caught flouting GDPR, Uber can, in turn, be fined thousands and thousands of dollars until they right this particular wrong.
Until that happens, the ADCU has set up a monthlong fund for folks looking to support the case, racking up 345 pounds (roughly $622) since the case went live in the AM. They’re also encouraging all Uber drivers and couriers for Uber Eats to file their own requests for data from the company, in the hopes that more voices — and more pressure on the company — might actually force them to make a change. But considering Uber’s standing track record of shitty behaviour towards drivers, this Union might be facing an uphill battle, even if the local data-protective laws are on their side.