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Uber and Lyft drivers are using the companies' algorithms against them

Community is more powerful than technology.
Image: A man waits for a ride-hailing service at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Aug. 24, 2016.
Waiting for a ride-hailing service at Reagan National Airport.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call

Though much of the modern internet is premised on the idea that it brings people together, capitalism — not humanity or even a recognizable morality — powers technology companies.

But since technology now powers so many aspects of civic life, we must infuse human rights principles and accountability into how these platforms operate. In the absence of clear pathways of accountability in which workers concerns are addressed, we can expect to see continuous uprisings and actions organized through loosely connected networks of solidarity — and some of them will even use the power of the platforms against their owners.

Meanwhile, technology companies must accept the reality that algorithms can never replace the power of community.

Take, for example, Uber and Lyft workers whose fare-seeking takes them to the hired car parking lots surrounding Reagan National Airport outside of Washington. Tired of driving on mercurial roads for fares set to maximize company profits through massive scale rather than driver profits through fair fares, they have organized to manipulate the companies' own algorithms at the airport by creating artificial price surges.


“Every night, several times a night, Uber and Lyft drivers at Reagan National Airport simultaneously turn off their ride-share apps for a minute or two to trick the app into thinking there are no drivers available — creating a price surge. When the fare goes high enough, the drivers turn their apps back on and lock into the higher fare,” reported WJLA, the ABC-TV affiliate in Washington.

Actions like these, described by Lyft as “fraudulent behavior … [that] violates our community guidelines,” should come as no surprise to ride-sharing companies enjoying multibillion-dollar valuations. They created a frightening, precarious reality for laborers in which everyone is a contractor and their livelihoods are tied to the companies' pre-set algorithms designed solely to maximize their profits through mass consumer acceptance; the drivers are simply working together, as drivers at the areas' airports have for decades, to fight the (capitalist) ghost in the machine.

Their actions are an obvious outcome for an incentive structure that ignores the human need — living wages — of the people whose labor created the value for ride-sharing platforms. These services rose to popularity as a byproduct of a technology-enabled gig economy that exploited our lack of community under the guise of “independence,” only to be met by pushback from a community stitched together in solidarity against a system that has created outsize wealth for few and insecurity for many.

The actions of the D.C.-area ride-share drivers follows the arc of individuals organizing for a workplace democracy, where people (and not merciless terms of service) have a voice in determining their working conditions and wages. In recent weeks, this can be seen by drivers on ride-sharing platforms organizing work stoppages and strikes in cities across the country in response to continuous reductions in driver pay (half of drivers make less than $10 an hour) in the weeks leading up to Uber’s anticipated $8.1 billion IPO.

The real violators of broad community standards, though, are technology companies not held accountable for exploiting the individuals whose labor created the companies' wealth.

This organized, coordinated pushback also comes as no surprise to customers, commuters and drivers from the Washington, D.C., region, where people are already conditioned to creating ad hoc communities in order to navigate and facilitate life in an area where public transportation infrastructure is overburdened and traffic is a continuous hellscape. Commuters facing inhumane commutes over inadequate roads limited to multipassenger cars (and no trucks or buses) have long self-organized in empty strip mall parking lots into casual carpool lanes known as “slug lines” in order to reclaim time and agency.

And, for decades, taxicab workers — my father was one of them — also organized because they needed to acquire a special, additional permit in order to be able to pick up fares originating from Reagan airport; the number of such permits is currently limited to 1,500, but ride-share drivers are not required to obtain one.

The financial stability and physical safety from fares originating from the airport made these permits deeply coveted and, over time, an extraordinarily tight-knit driver community developed in the long lines outside the airport. This community, while loosely organized, did not disappear when ride-sharing appeared on the scene, but evolved and was adopted by those drivers, who rely on it to earn living wages against an algorithm that seeks to minimize their pay.

It takes organized community. “It’s like we work as a family, like a team together. Like as a team. We do it. Every night. We do it again. We drop off, come back again, it’s a routine,” one of the drivers explained about their manipulation of the algorithm that long manipulated them.

For Lyft to call “fraudulent” the drivers who are community organizing to obtain fairer wages is tone-deaf. Moral integrity is not something that can be arbitrarily assigned by a company whose business model exists on perpetuating economic disparity by design.

Moral missteps always come at a cost, and ride-share services like Uber and Lyft have made many as they continuously cut corners every step of the way on their road to celebrated IPOs. From continuously skirting government oversight and regulations to fomenting toxic corporate work cultures to admitting in public filings to consistently undercutting the pay for the workers whose labor powers their platforms, they have shown that there are limits to scaling exploitation as a core competitive advantage.

And now drivers have shown that, even in the age of disruption, there are ways to hold companies accountable for skipping moral absolutes.