On Thursday, a group of gig economy scholars published an open letter calling on academics to adopt a set of principles that would ensure independence from corporate influence in research, public policy formulation, and advocacy.
The letter, which was signed by dozens of academics across multiple disciplines, comes after controversy surrounding a July 6th study done by Cornell University researchers and commissioned by Uber and Lyft that suggested Seattle drivers did not need a minimum wage law because they were already earning over $23 per hour after expenses. On the same day, a study done by economists at the New School and UC Berkley James A. Parrott and Michael Reich (who previously studied the wages of NYC ride-hail drivers) found drivers earned just $9.73 an hour after expenses. A public debate followed, and Parrott and Reich themselves published a comparison of the two studies that highlighted flaws in the Cornell study, which they said traced back to its over-reliance on data selectively shared by Uber and Lyft that distorted how driver expenses were calculated.
“For the past decade, gig companies have actively and aggressively lobbied governments to create a regulatory environment suitable to their business practices and interests,” the open letter reads. “In the process, misleading studies created through and with corporate partnerships have had an undue influence on regulatory disputes. Often, when policymakers attempt to collect data to do their own research to inform policy decisions, the gig companies have restricted government access to even the most basic data on the operation of their services.”
According to Veena Dubal, a professor of law at UC Hastings that was involved in organizing the letter, the debates over the Seattle studies point to corporations such as Uber being able to influence academic research to reach conclusions that then inform public policy.
"The gig economy, even though it makes up such a small percentage of the broader US workforce, is a gateway to destabilizing our existing protections that workers have,” Dubal said. “So we are just calling on researchers doing work in this field to abide by basic ethical standards: data transparency; assuming that all time should be paid for, the basic assumption of our laws, instead of reformulating how we think about work through economic models; not intentionally undermining worker organizing.”
The letter points out that data provided by Uber and Lyft, as well as research funded by them, is suspect because the companies "have repeatedly made the false legal claims that de-identified data needed to determine wage trends is proprietary and protected competitive information." This not only allows the companies to set the parameters of the data and its analysis, the letter says, but results in non-replicable studies that will be offered to policymakers as evidence that "normalizes the companies' systematic withholding of basic information needed by regulators to govern."
The core principles in the letter boil down to researchers refusing to participate in studies that withhold data from peer-review, conducting research that accurately accounts for risks and expenses, and being self-aware about whether the research will be used to undermine workers.
In practice, the researchers want companies to make their data publicly available, not just to select researchers. Failing that, the letter calls for researchers to make the data they receive from said companies public as well.
"With data transparency, our point was two-fold. One: these are principles that the American Economics Association has laid out already—a basic principle that you need to make your data available. The second concern we have is that by accepting this data and Uber's argument that this is proprietary normalizes this kind of secrecy,” Dubal said.
In the case of the Cornell study, Dubal said, the data that Uber claimed was proprietary had in fact been shared with New York regulators. “If everyone says 'no, we're not going to do this research with you unless we make this data transparent' then it undermines their false argument that this is proprietary data,” she said.
In a statement, an Uber spokesperson defended the Cornell study and derided Parrott and Reich’s analysis, saying it was based on “limited data” and “flawed assumptions.”
“Cornell’s study is the first to provide an independent, data-driven picture of the full earnings experience of rideshare drivers by combining records from both major ridesharing companies,” the statement said. “Parrott and Reich’s study is based on limited data and flawed assumptions about drivers’ experiences that are unsupported by facts, evidence or reality. Parrott and Reich throw the kitchen sink into their per-mile cost estimates to artificially depress driver net earnings estimates and wildly inflate the pay standard needed to ensure that drivers earn minimum wage, which would drive up prices for the public and reduce work for drivers. We hope policymakers will take a fact based approach as they consider new policy proposals by using the insights from Cornell’s in-depth analysis of detailed data.”
At this moment, Uber is engaged in multiple European legal battles over whether its data and algorithms are exempt from the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that allows individuals to access personal data collected on them by any organization.
If the lawsuits are successful, it would open the door to showing that Uber drivers are effectively treated like employees, and illuminate how Uber has obscured those facts to avoid regulations that would have achieved more just outcomes for cities and drivers at the cost of profit.
“Repeating the company's line on [proprietary data] leads to repeating the company's line on assumptions around what sort of financial risks drivers take on. The whole [Cornell] study is based on this assumption that most drivers are working casually so we don't need to consider overhead costs,” Dubal added. “Except, most drivers who work casually are still bearing those overhead costs and most of the work is completed by full-time drivers. They also didn't consider hybrid insurance, which all drivers have to have even if they are casual drivers but they included tips. To me, this is all just so fundamentally unethical."
The issue of behind-the-scenes influence in research and policy is not limited to the gig economy, but also extends to antitrust research. There, corporations (and right-wing networks) have systemically compromised the independence of academic research by hiring critics, funding think tanks, and leveraging large donations to weigh in on university appointments.
Now that gig economy scholars are getting wise, however, a new direction in research that illuminates the bad practices of some of today’s most powerful companies without interference may be taking shape.
"What's important about this letter and these principles is not that they're going to change things immediately, but that they're going to keep asking us to change," Katie Wells, another one of the letter’s organizers and a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor told Motherboard. "Letters, principles, media stories, these all help change the way we think about the world and act in it. They'll push researchers and they'll push policymakers to demand independence from corporate influence."