Uber Is Getting Sued Over Its Allegedly Racist Ratings System

A former Uber driver is suing the company for suspending drivers based on its ratings system, which the lawsuit alleges allows racism to run rampant.
October 27, 2020, 6:26pm
On Monday, an ex-driver filed a lawsuit accusing Uber of violating the Civil Rights Act by firing minority drivers based on its ratings system, which the lawsuit alleges allows racist bias to run rampant.  "Uber's use of its star rating system to terminat
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On Monday, an ex-driver filed a lawsuit accusing Uber of violating the Civil Rights Act by firing minority drivers based on its ratings system, which the lawsuit alleges allows racist bias to run rampant.

"Uber's use of its star rating system to terminate drivers constitutes unlawful discrimination based on race, both because it has a disparate impact on non-white drivers and because Uber is aware that passengers are prone to discriminate in their evaluation of drivers, but Uber has continued to use this system, thus making it liable for intentional race discrimination,” said said former Uber driver Thomas Liu in the complaint, which was filed in San Francisco court on Monday. 

Uber did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

Under Uber’s ratings system, customers rate drivers on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. What customers may not know is that Uber fires drivers who fall below a seemingly arbitrary average rating. Liu was fired by Uber in October 2015, after his average rating fell below 4.6. While driving for Uber in San Diego, he noticed that riders canceled ride requests after he had already accepted, and once they were able to view his picture. Other riders asked him "where he was from" in an unfriendly way, the complaint states. .

Liu is filing on behalf of a proposed national class of non-white drivers who have been discriminated against and kicked off the Uber platform. 

Uber has long maintained that its drivers are independent contractors and not employees. As such, contractors are not protected by the employment discrimination provisions in the Civil Rights Act. However, Liu argues that Uber drivers are in fact employees (something California courts agree with) because they "perform a service in the usual course of Uber's business" and because Uber requires its drivers "abide by a litany of policies and rules" that control how drivers behave. Therefore, as employees, they are protected under the Civil Rights Act.

Uber has long wielded a vast array of tools to tightly manage its drivers, ranging from subtle psychological tricks that encourage more driving to a system of algorithmic overseers that dictate when, where, and how to drive. Uber has argued that drivers aren’t “core” to its business, but it has been clear for years that there is no business model without drivers or their labor seeing as how Uber is a ride-hail company.

Bloomberg reported that Liu brought this claim before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision four years ago. No conclusion was reached, but the commission authorized him to take this complaint to court in August. 

This is also not the first time Uber has been accused of discrimination. In June, an analysis of Chicago ride-hail data found that Uber charged higher prices per mile for trips starting and ending in predominantly non-white neighborhoods. Last year, a Reuters analysis of Chicago ride-hail data also showed UberPool price hikes were pricing out low-income non-white neighborhoods, where most pool rides were booked.

In 2016, a study by researchers Alex Rosenblat, Karen Levy, Solon Barocas, and Tim Hwang, warned that Uber's ratings system allowed racial bias to enter Uber's algorithmic evaluations of drivers while avoiding any sort of liability for this outcome.

"The ability to bring a Title VII claim successfully relies on a plaintiff's ability to demonstrate the discriminatory impact of the driver rating system in the first place," the researchers wrote. "[T]he plaintiff would also need to show the presence of less discriminatory alternatives in the scenario where Uber successfully argues at trial that its rating system is justified by its job relatedness."

Plaintiffs such as Liu do not currently have access to data necessary to argue those points, as the researchers point out. The problem of data asymmetry here is also plaguing drivers in Europe currently suing Uber for access to information the platform has compiled on them. 

Liu’s lawsuit is important to watch, because Uber-like ratings systems have already proliferated on gig platforms like Handy, TaskRabbit, and Amazon Home Services, and also in the hotel, restaurant, retail, service, and care industries, as a way to schedule shifts and fire workers. 

In 2015, Rosenblat warned other businesses might replicate Uber’s own model: “a semi-autonomous system” that collected user ratings to “replace the work of a middle manager in deciding whether to hire or fire human drivers." The widespread adoption of such a model would mean “the proliferation of automated systems that employ an ad hoc, distributed labor force regulated largely by consumer feedback” that perpetuate or amplify biases in the larger society, but offer none of the protections or remedies that employment law currently does.

Now, as a lawsuit over exactly this issue heads to court, it seems as though that world is already here.