Why Uber's manipulation of drivers is so wrong

Uber has been manipulating its drivers into working longer hours and accepting more rides. It's part of a bigger problem facing gig workers.

The Uber logo is seen in front of protesting taxi drivers at the Montreal courthouse, on February 2, 2016. Calgary city council has passed a bylaw that would allow for the operation of ride-sharing companies, but officials with Uber say the rules are too strict. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

(Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Uber has an ethics problem. The New York Times reported last week that Uber is using questionable techniques to psychologically manipulate its drivers into working longer hours and accepting more rides—to the likely detriment of their interests and well-being. Behaviour nudging techniques are increasingly popular among policy-makers and may be defensible when manipulation doesn’t slip into coercion, and when they are designed to achieve positive outcomes for those being nudged. But Uber’s practices fail to meet these criteria.

Uber’s team of social scientists has been studying drivers’ behavior and implementing various initiatives to alter it. A “forward dispatch” function on drivers’ phones, for example, assigns new fares to drivers who have not yet finished their current fares and who might not be interested in another one. Drivers must actively reject the new fare in the same way that Netflix viewers must actively exit the service if they don’t want the next episode of whatever series they’re watching to begin automatically. Inspired by addictive features of video games, Uber also subjects its drivers to smartphone reminders that they are close to achieving arbitrary targets or earning essentially worthless digital rewards and badges.

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No one likes to be manipulated. People should be able to make choices free from coercion, we think, so long as our choices don’t infringe on the rights and liberty of others. Forcing people to do things that they would not otherwise do, through threats of violence, blackmail or withholding necessities, are clearly out of bounds. Uber’s driver manipulation techniques certainly don’t rise to this level of coercion. Drivers are free to reject forward dispatched fares, ignore notifications and rewards, and end their shifts whenever they want. It may be harder for them to do so, but they are not coerced. So what’s the problem?

Short of strong coercion, manipulation might still be objectionable if it influences people to make some, rather than other, choices—choices that, if left alone, they would make differently. In their book, Nudge—widely credited for increasing the popularity of behavioural science among policy-makers and others—Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein address this charge. Different “choice architectures” are consistent with autonomy, they say, even when some choices are made harder and others easier. It might be harder to choose an unhealthy breakfast cereal when placed on the top shelf rather than at eye level in a store, but if the same set of options is available, then free choice is preserved.

But the permissibility of means is only part of the debate. Intentions and outcomes matter too. Here things get dicey for Uber. Thaler and Sunstein write about behavioural nudges that encourage good outcomes—such as improved health, wealth, better relationships, and happiness. People are nudged with the intent to improve their objective well-being and, when executed effectively, it produces good outcomes for the nudged. In that case, the manipulative nudging is less objectionable—not because we think that ends justify means, but because the well-being of the nudged is the central concern.

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Uber admits that it manipulates drivers, but claims it benefits both customers and drivers. By nudging drivers, Uber’s customers enjoy shorter waits and lower prices, and drivers experience less idle time and the potential to make more money by taking more fares. Yet, because a larger and better coordinated supply of drivers lowers prices, drivers must take more fares and work longer hours to make the same amount of money. So while Uber’s manipulation techniques might not violate drivers’ liberty in a strict sense, they undermine drivers’ well-being. And because drivers are contractors, not employees, they have few opportunities to challenge the practice.

Uber’s nudging experiment is just one example of what is likely to become widespread practice in the emerging gig economy. As more businesses turn to independent contractors, rather than regular employees, they will need inventive substitutes for standard management approaches to motivating and regulating worker performance. At the same time, contract workers, lacking the more robust protections associated with regular employment, will be exposed to the risks of these new management techniques. Cynics might claim that this is simply the reality of the new economy and that precarious gig workers will just have to get used to being manipulated. This is a recipe for more ethically questionable practices. In that case, a savvy entrepreneur might want to begin building the gig economy’s most needed start-up: Uber, but for ethics.


Listen to Daniel Munro on The Ethics Lab on Ottawa Today with Mark Sutcliffe, Thursdays at 11 EST. 

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