Uber Tried to Suppress Its Chinese Drivers’ Political Activities. It Got Caught.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaks in Beijing last December.

Photo by Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Uber has landed in hot water before for tracking the movements of passengers without their permission. But what about tracking its own drivers? Obviously, the company needs to do that in order to know where drivers are in real time so that it can supply rides. According to the Wall Street Journal, though, this past weekend in Hangzhou, Uber found another use for that GPS data: scaring drivers into staying away from a protest over its service:

In two short messages sent to Uber drivers in Hangzhou and circulated online—verified with Uber in China by The Wall Street Journal—Uber urged its drivers not to go the scene and instructed those already there to leave immediately. Uber said it would use GPS to identify drivers that had refused to leave the location and cancel its contracts with them.

The messages said Uber’s actions were designed to “maintain social order.”

Uber has made expanding in China a top priority for 2015. As if the company doesn’t already have enough money, it’s reportedly raising $1 billion to spend solely on breaking into 50 cities there. That might explain why Uber seems determined to avoid any sort of trouble with the Chinese government and has adopted such an anti-protest stance. A few days before the Hangzhou incident, Uber warned drivers in China that it did not condone protests, telling Quartz in a statement, “we firmly oppose any form of gathering or protest, and we encourage a more rational form of communication for solving problems.” (I contacted Uber for comment earlier on Monday and will update this post if anyone responds.)

There are a couple problems here. First, as Quartz’s Josh Horwitz notes, it’s kind of crazy that a company condemning public displays in China is the same one that in the U.S. has repeatedly and successfully mobilized riders to push for Uber-friendly changes in legislation. Uber has now gotten “ride-sharing” laws on the books in multiple states and more than a dozen cities. Quite often, it’s accomplished that by encouraging riders to flood public officials’ offices with calls and emails. This very process is currently playing out in East Hampton, New York, where Uber was effectively banned earlier in June.

Second, there’s the question of whether Uber drivers should be considered independent contractors or traditional employees. In the U.S., where the issue is headed to trial, the analysis hinges heavily on how much control Uber is perceived as exerting over the people who work for it. So, for example, Uber would say that because drivers get to set their own schedules, they’re independent contractors. But drivers might point out that they can be suspended from the platform if they accept less than 90 percent of rides, which suggests Uber is acting like an employer. Had Uber used GPS data to threaten drivers in the U.S. the way it did in China, it would be “compelling evidence that Uber exerts sufficient control over its drivers to be classified as their legal employer,” says Brishen Rogers, a professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and the author of a paper on the social costs of Uber.

Finally, to state the obvious, Uber’s tactic in China looks horrible—not to mention extra-authoritarian in its dealings within an authoritarian country. Essentially, the company was using the geo-tracking information from its app to not only monitor the whereabouts of drivers, but to intimidate them into staying away from a particular area. This time it was a protest in Hangzhou, but who knows what it might be in the future? Uber’s ethics are questionable enough as a ride-hailing company. It doesn’t need to be in the business of maintaining “social order” as well.