Leading Uber critic hired to teach the company that drivers are people

Alex Rosenblat was finally swayed to try to fix Uber from the inside.

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Uber’s worst kept secret is, to put it lightly, its strained relationship with its drivers. Alex Rosenblat, a prominent critic of the company, labor researcher, and author, will try to help Uber’s atone for its original sin, according to Bloomberg. Goldblat, who wrote a book entitled Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work was quietly brought on as the company’s head of marketplace policy, fairness, and research last month. Uber had unsuccessfully courted her years ago, but now, it seems like the price is right and the stakes are too high to ignore.

Affecting change from within — Rosenblat had researched Uber from within for years before she was first approached by the company in 2017. In Uberland, she remarked that this kind of expert recruitment was typical for companies seeking to quiet their biggest threats.

Now, in a statement to Bloomberg, Uber claims it wants someone in the role who isn’t “afraid to challenge [its] thinking.” Rosenblat either believes she’ll get the room to make necessary changes within the company or that, at the very least, an attempt needs to be made. She says her decision was informed by the larger number of academic critics in her field who can hold the fort while she uses her expertise in new ways.

How do you solve a problem central to a business model? — After spending the better part of a year disobeying Californian law, Uber and other gig economy companies bought their way out of classifying drivers as employees last fall.

Now, its food delivery offshoot, UberEats, joins competitors by tacking on fees to customer’s orders to help pay for drivers’ watered-down benefits. Meanwhile, on main, it’s trying to use some of its most vulnerable drivers as props to rehabilitate its (completely accurate) exploitative public image.

Rosenblat will use her research — which spans various discriminatory algorithm processes, pay disparities, and driver surveillance — to “get the company to take into consideration the experiences and point of view of drivers” with special regard to the product itself.

Alexandrea Ravenelle, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, isn’t holding her breath that Uber is growing a conscience, but found a sliver of optimism for drivers’ treatment. The gig economy academic told Bloomberg: “If anyone can help them to make a difference, it will be Alex, but I think she’s got a [sic] uphill battle ahead of her.”