This court case could close the power gap between online mediators and users

Uber drivers demand more insight in their own data, for knowledge is power. Let me elaborate on the importance of this court case and what the possibilities are in terms of restoration in the balance of power within the platform economy.

Online platforms like Uber, AirBnb and Thuisbezorgd dictate the rules of the ‘game’ as market authority. In the case of platforms for taxis and food delivery, the platform determines who receives which gig, against what rate, they have a full say in who is allowed to play and who isn’t, etc. etc.

The problem is rooted in the fact that the platform sits on all the information. A company like Uber knows exactly how much supply and demand is available, and has insight on rates and competition. Knowledge is power, and in this case the power is in the hands of the platform. The information asymmetry is maintained for the individual user, more than for anyone else. Moreover, the difference in power is even greater with platforms assigning short lasting gigs automatically, compared to traditional mediators. 

A group Uber driver is standing up against this situation, writes The Guardian. They sued the platform, as they are of the opinion that they are shown too little data to make the right choices and do not have sufficient insight in the way the company is making decisions about the suppliers.

Balanced power

Drivers have gathered under the umbrella of Worker Info Exchange (WIE). In the petition (interesting reading material!), WIE defines itself as a non-profit organization aiming, among other things, to give employees and self employed persons in the information economy access to their (personal) data which is collected during work. An important goal is to structure the balance of power between large digital platforms, such as Uber, and the people who make these platforms successful – the employees.

There are several ways to enforce an honest balance of power. For example, by making decision making processes and algorithms transparent to a trusted third party, a so-called algorithm accountant. This auditor may check the algorithm on certain variables. During a workshop last summer, I explored this possibility with a multi-faceted group of stakeholders.

Access and pooling

Another solution is found in giving users access to the data which influences their individual transactions. Particularly, this is the goal of the WIE. Especially among platforms qualifying suppliers as entrepreneurs, this should be a no-brainer, as doing business is only really business when you have access to data influencing your sales and transaction. A skilled entrepreneur bases his strategy on information.

Subsequently, this data can be bundled or pooled. This offers the opportunity to analyse data based on several suppliers and narrow the gap in power between suppliers and the platform.

Worker cooperatives

Ideas to unite suppliers of platforms have been around for some time. Well over a year ago, I wrote a (Dutch) blog post on “the cooperative as labor union 2.0‘ why labor rights attorneys Jaap van Slooten and Jorinde Holscher made a plea for the introduction of the worker cooperative. In their paper (again in Dutch), they elaborate that this kind of cooperative could help freelance platform workers in making collective (rate) agreements with the platforms they work for. Hence, the workers cooperative could substantially help stabilize the power balance of suppliers and platforms.

This is another goal of the WIE. This non-profit is being supported by a sort of cooperative: the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU), a labor union fighting for the rights of all private hire drivers & couriers in the United Kingdom. The union desires more transparency in data processing by parties like Uber.

Bargaining collectively

The ADCU, in turn, is linked with the International Alliance of App Transport Workers (IAATW), a global organization committed to the digital rights of platform workers. They launched a joint ‘data trust’ gathering personal data of drivers, in order to use the insights gained from this pool for collective bargaining.

This court case of WIE against Uber contains an important contribution to the exploration of how to level the playing field between platforms and users. Anton Ekker, the Dutch attorney on the case, sums it up in this article in The Guardian: “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.” 

He justifiably places this case in the broader perspective of growing automated decision making and algorithmic management of workers in the broadest sense. There surely are many unanswered questions, and even more will arise, but the only way to explore the possibilities of how to attain a power balance, is by starting to do something about the imbalance. This court case might just as well be the right vehicle to set things in motion.

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