Uber Hires Prominent Critic to Focus on Treatment of Drivers
(Bloomberg) -- Alex Rosenblat, an author and labor researcher, wrote for years about how Uber Technologies Inc. obscures pay structures, surveils drivers and creates systems that facilitate discrimination against those workers. Now she works for Uber.
The ride-hailing company hired Rosenblat last month as head of marketplace policy, fairness and research. Her appointment, which hasn’t been previously reported, is part of an effort to reform Uber’s treatment of, and relationship with, its drivers.
Rosenblat is best known for her 2018 book, “Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work,” for which she interviewed hundreds of drivers about their working conditions. The book highlights driver stories of pay disparities, pervasive surveillance and the lopsided power dynamics in algorithm-mediated work.
As an Uber employee, Rosenblat said her responsibility is to “get the company to take into consideration the experiences and point of view of drivers, especially at the product level” and that her work will be informed by past research.
In an emailed statement, Uber said it hired Rosenblat because the company wants “people at Uber who care about driver issues and who aren’t afraid to challenge our thinking on any given issue.”
Before joining Uber, Rosenblat was a senior researcher at Data and Society, a nonprofit institute that seeks to “challenge the power and purpose of technology in society.” Founded in 2014, the organization publishes research on artificial intelligence, the impact of technology on labor and health and online disinformation. The MacArthur Foundation and a philanthropic organization overseen by EBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar are among the 20 financial supporters named on the group’s most recent annual report.
Uber has long had an adversarial relationship with many academics, who have criticized the company for restricting data access to select researchers. More than 70 gig economy academics wrote in an open letter after the publication of a 2020 study by Cornell University’s Institute for Workplace Studies commissioned by Uber and Lyft Inc., calling its findings suspect.
Alexandrea Ravenelle was among those who signed the letter. In an interview, she expressed admiration for Rosenblat but a continued distrust of the company. Ravenelle, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she’s concerned Uber will ignore Rosenblat’s internal critiques and said the poor state of driver conditions has been public knowledge for years.
“When you interview the workers, the situation never seems to be improving for them,” Ravenelle said. “If anyone can help them to make a difference, it will be Alex, but I think she’s got a uphill battle ahead of her.”
This isn’t the first time Rosenblat considered trying to change things from the inside. In 2017, after three years of researching the company, Uber attempted to hire her. She pondered the offer but ultimately declined.
“This moment says a lot about what happens to experts: Once they know enough to be a threat, the companies they study will try to absorb them,” Rosenblat wrote about the attempted recruitment in “Uberland.”
That same year, Rosenblat co-authored a paper describing how Uber’s use of customer reviews to evaluate performance could amount to workplace discrimination due to consumer biases. She is now working to apply these findings to service and policy design, as part of her goal to “encourage the company to assess product impact on drivers as individuals, rather than as part of an abstract group.”
Rosenblat recently appeared at a speaker series about the ethics of algorithmic governance and co-authored a post about the disappearance of secure employment during recessions. She said she changed her mind about joining Uber because there are now many others conducting the kind of research she has championed and can carry her mantle.
“There are new ways I can use my expertise now, inside the company,” Rosenblat said.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.