On Friday, a group of Uber drivers from the UK and Portugal won a legal battle against Uber and competitor Ola that will force the companies to reveal more about how the platforms manage drivers using techniques including proprietary algorithms and surveillance.
Amsterdam's District Court ruled that Uber and Ola must disclose data used to deduct earnings, assign work, and suspend drivers. Uber and Ola are both ordered to shed light on how driver surveillance systems (Uber's Real Time ID system and Ola's Guardian, respectively) are used.
At its core, the case—first brought to the court in December— argued that drivers were being managed by algorithms without human oversight in ways that circumvented digital rights as EU citizens and labor rights as workers. To that end, drivers wanted to force Uber and Ola to give drivers access to data collected on them used to structure their jobs, monitor their performance, and in some cases fire them.
Uber was ordered by the court to share data it used to suspend two drivers for “fraudulent activity,” such as anonymized trip ratings. The court did not, however, accept arguments that Uber's suspensions had taken place without human input, nor did it award damages. Instead, the court is requiring drivers provide more specific requests for the personal data.
The Worker Info Exchange and the App & Delivery Couriers Union suggested they might appeal some aspects of these judgements over concerns they "unduly put the burden of proof on workers" to prove unfair algorithmic decisions before demanding transparency, as well as complicate "the right of workers to access employment rights" where these algorithms are involved.
“This is a crucial decision,” an Uber spokesperson said a statement. “The Court has confirmed Uber’s dispatch system does not equate to automated decision making, and that we provided drivers with the data they are entitled to. The Court also confirmed that Uber’s processes have meaningful human involvement. Safety is the number one priority on the Uber platform, so any deactivation decision is taken extremely seriously with manual reviews by our specialist team."
In its statement, the Worker Info Exchange reiterated that "such terminations based on unsubstantiated allegations of fraud in fact really amounted to performance related sackings" and that Uber insisted otherwise to "avoid its responsibilities to exercise due process as an employer."
The court also ordered Ola to share a profiling system it used to rate driver performance with metrics such as a "fraud probability score" and "earnings profile" that informed algorithmic allocation of work on the platform. Ola will also be forced to reveal how its algorithms made decisions about reducing driver pay.
"This ruling will bring much needed transparency about the nature of such systems and how they are used against a vulnerable workforce," the group behind the lawsuit—the Worker Info Exchange—said in a statement.
Another part of Friday’s ruling concerns driver surveillance systems and the role they may play in managing workers. Ride-hail companies have recently begun to surveil drivers more to improve safety. Uber's Real-Time ID Check surveillance system asks drivers to regularly take photos of themselves for verification by software or a human reviewer, for example. The system has been in the works for years, but was only launched in the UK last year in April and described in an Uber statement as proof that "Safety is our number one priority." Ola’s Guardian surveillance system was first introduced in 2018 as a pilot program in select Indian cities and watches for “route deviations.”
Uber and Ola have come under fire for years because of sexual violence on their platforms, as well as their inadequate responses to assaults or attempts to limit the companies’ liability. . Safety is critical, but the lawsuit's argument and the court’s ruling make clear that these surveillance systems also play some role in managing and disciplining drivers at both companies.
Indeed, spinning surveillance systems as safety features resembles Amazon’s attempts to distract from how its exploitation of delivery drivers causes road safety problems with a robust dragnet spanning its entire delivery fleet.
On top of this, the court’s ruling opens the door for drivers to bring future complaints and appeals to courts on grounds of digital rights abuses—a move that comes at the heels of another landmark decision by the UK Supreme Court last month affirming that Uber drivers have rights as workers, not independent contractors. In the UK, there are three categories of employment status: employees, workers, and independent contractors. As workers, Uber drivers are now due rights such as a minimum wage, rest breaks, paid holidays, and the right to unionize.
"This ruling is a massive victory for our members who have been subject to unfair treatment by Uber and Ola using oppressive electronic surveillance systems,” said Yaseen Aslam, President of ADCU in a statement. “Workers are proving again to be resilient and creative in the mission to build collective power and reduce the asymmetry of power between themselves and global platforms like Uber and Ola."