Uber drivers to launch legal bid to uncover app’s algorithm
Minicab drivers will launch a legal bid to uncover secret computer algorithms used by Uber to manage their work in a test case that could increase transparency for millions of gig economy workers across Europe.
Two UK drivers are demanding to see the huge amounts of data the ride-sharing company collects on them and how this is used to exert management control, including through automated decision-making that invisibly shapes their jobs.
The case is being brought on Monday by the UK-based App Drivers and Couriers Union in the district court in Amsterdam, where the international headquarters of the $56bn (£44.5bn) ride-hailing firm is located. The union said transparency was essential in checking if Uber was exercising discrimination or unequal treatment between drivers. It will also allow drivers to organise and build collective bargaining power over terms of work and pay in a way that is currently impossible.
It came at the start of a significant week for Uber’s business model in the UK. On Tuesday, the company begins its supreme court challenge against landmark rulings that the former Uber drivers Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, founders of the ADCU, should have been treated as workers rather than self-employed contractors and so should have benefited from the minimum wage and paid holidays.
The number of adults working on online platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo at least once a week doubled between 2016 and 2019 to almost 10% of the adult population, according to a study for the Trades Union Congress.
The boom in online shopping during the lockdown saw the parcel delivery company DPD create another 6,000 self-employed jobs, which rely on the use of handheld terminals that track time and motion.
“This is about the distribution of power,” said Anton Ekker, the Amsterdam privacy lawyer leading the case. “It’s about Uber exerting control through data and automated decision-making and how it is blocking access to that.”
He said: “The app decides millions of times a day who is going to get what ride: who gets the nice rides; who gets the short rides. But this is not just about Uber. The problem is everywhere. Algorithms and data give a lot of control but the people who are subject to it are often no longer aware of it.”
The claim says Uber uses tags on drivers’ profiles, for example “inappropriate behaviour” or simply “police tag”. Reports relate to “navigation – late arrival / missed ETA” and “professionalism – cancelled on rider, inappropriate behaviour, attitude”. The drivers complain they were not being provided with this data or information on the underlying logic of how it was used. They want to how that processing affects them, including on their driver score.
The union members Azeem Hanif and Alfie Wellcoat claim Uber has failed to fulfill its obligations in its response to their requests under general data protection regulations (GDPR). They want to see their detailed driver profiles, comments about them made by Uber staff and how more than two dozen categories of data gathered about them are processed, legal papers show.
“Uber collects large amounts of data that provide a very penetrating picture of, among other things, the use of the Uber driver app, the location and driving behaviour of the driver, communication with customers and the Uber support department,” the claim states.
It argues that under GDPR regulations, which are similar in the UK and the Netherlands, app workers have the right to access “profiling” data, which includes evaluations of a person’s reliability, behaviour, location or movements.
A spokesperson for Uber said: “Our privacy team works hard to provide any requested personal data that individuals are entitled to. We will give explanations when we cannot provide certain data, such as when it doesn’t exist or disclosing it would infringe on the rights of another person under GDPR. Under the law, individuals have the right to escalate their concerns by contacting Uber’s data protection officer or their national data protection authority for additional review.”