Like many billion-dollar startups, Uber is notorious for its self-regard. One nugget buried in this week’s news serves as a reminder: until a few days ago, Uber had no automated system to process users’ requests to delete their accounts. That meant that every time a user submitted a request for account deletion, an Uber employee had to perform the deletion manually. This might seem like small hay for a $60 billion company, but it reflects an important ideological underpinning—the belief that once someone signs up for the future of transport, he or she has no reason to look back. This view is widespread at tech firms, which tend to make their products easy to sign up for but impossible to quit. (Twitter, to take one common example, requires users to mothball their accounts for thirty days before they can be permanently deleted.)
Uber finally instituted an automated account deletion system on Sunday, after a #DeleteUber campaign swept through the Twittersphere. The nominal cause was Uber’s response to Trump’s executive order prohibiting immigration from seven Muslim countries. While the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, whose membership is majority immigrant and Muslim, announced that it would protest by refusing to pick up passengers from JFK airport, Uber decided to show its social conscience by removing surge pricing, the increased rates that it institutes in times of high demand (or to manipulate its tightly controlled market and to maximize its revenues, depending on your view). The removal of surge pricing was supposed to signal to customers that Uber would not leverage an emergency situation to goose fares—something that the company had been accused of doing after the Paris terrorist attacks. But to many critics, it seemed like Uber, in deliberately crossing the picket line, was seizing a commercial opportunity under the guise of social justice. Soon enough the hashtag #DeleteUber took off, with hundreds of users posting screenshots of themselves deleting the mobile app from their phones or submitting requests to close their accounts. For Uber, it was an unprecedented defection of customers, and spurred it, however reluctantly, to finally create an automatic process for deleting accounts.
Uber’s cause wasn’t helped by its mustachioed arch-rival Lyft, who deftly outplayed it during this latest fracas. Lyft reacted to Trump’s executive order by announcing a million-dollar donation to the ACLU, which has lately become an interest of surveillance-loving tech titans. (Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist and early Twitter investor, has been leading an online campaign encouraging donations to the ACLU, which he matches.) Soon after, the ACLU announced that it was going to put this weekend’s huge cash influx—totaling somewhere around $24 million—to use by joining YCombinator, the most sought-after startup incubator in Silicon Valley. The horrors of Trump have certainly produced some strange bedfellows, but the synchronicity of one of the country’s leading civil liberties organizations joining with a bootcamp for digital capitalists is more than a little weird. For one thing, the ACLU was a thriving concern for about eighty-five years before YCombinator appeared. And of course, it’s a nonprofit, meaning no one’s supposed to get rich off of it. Typically, as the dutiful stenographers at TechCrunch note, “Without many big exits for democracy startups, venture capitalists are hesitant to invest in them.”
Why not turn to one of the field’s most venerable brands to launder tech leaders’ ill-begotten riches into civic virtue?
But civil liberties are trending, according to a slide deck probably being prepared somewhere in Cupertino. So why not turn to one of the field’s most venerable brands to launder tech leaders’ ill-begotten riches into civic virtue? No matter that one of the mentors that YCombinator offers to its founder manqués is Peter Thiel, the tech-industry dybbuk who recently pivoted to the authoritarian-politics space. And best not consider that Lyft’s key investors include Thiel and Carl Icahn, another disaster capitalist and Trump booster. Moving further down the path of willful ignorance, it might be wise to overlook the fact that the tepid protests emanating out of Google, Apple, and other tech giants are mostly self-serving attempts to preserve a vital pipeline of foreign engineering talent; that these are companies engaged in an illegal wage-fixing scheme; or that many of their low-level workers, in factories, stores, company cafeterias, and delivery vans, rarely enjoy the luxe working conditions and institutional support afforded to programmers and ad execs.
This kind of ethical triage follows almost any political gesture by Silicon Valley firms. By cloaking themselves in a vague humanitarianism and bearing promises to change the world, these companies have brought our judgments upon themselves. But you need not drill down very far to realize how fruitless their considerations are and how deep the rot goes. This weekend, Airbnb, another tech company that has generated billions by monetizing the assets of a precarious public, issued the grand announcement that it would help refugees find free housing overseas. It later added the proviso that this pro-bono housing would be furnished first by volunteers and, perhaps, later, be paid for by Airbnb. Similarly, Uber’s promise to help its employees affected by the refugee ban extended only to its corporate workforce and not to its drivers—the laborers who, despite being key to the whole enterprise, Uber refuses to recognize as anything but independent contractors. Bruised by the growing backlash, company founder Travis Kalanick—another forward-thinking libertarian mogul who just happens to sit on a Trump economic advisory board—took to Facebook to announce compensation for Uber drivers who are trapped outside of the United States. He also promised to start a $3 million legal defense fund.
Ethical consumerism is a mug’s game.
This must be cold comfort for drivers who have sued Uber for their basic labor rights, who have watched the company decimate the taxi industry, or who have borrowed thousands of dollars from Uber to lease a vehicle in the hopes of earning a living wage. That some people have lately woken up to Uber’s perfidy is an unmitigated good. But it’s hard not to be a little galled by those who finally found, in Uber PR’s botched response to Trump’s executive order, sufficient reason to delete the app. Perhaps they weren’t persuaded by the many stories showing that the gig economy is a Ponzi scheme that leverages the insecurities of millions of un(der)employed workers while shifting huge amounts of capital, data, and corporate power to a distant class of VCs and executives. Perhaps they failed to note that a company that actively discourages its customers from tipping its workers might be morally suspect. Or, more simply, it might just be that Uber’s relative convenience and cut-rate fares—subsidized by billions of dollars from institutional investors like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—was too good a deal to refuse.
Ethical consumerism is a mug’s game, one that can become mired in the kind of preening virtue-signaling represented by the #DeleteUber campaign. Every day we are complicit in exploitative economic transactions. Silicon Valley’s achievement has been to re-cast these transactions as liberating acts of self-expression. The power and cultural cachet of tech companies can make them seem like natural partners for advancing the common good. But to truly comprehend their role in our world, we should judge them not by the foolish or bold gestures they make in times of civic crisis. Better to ask why it remains so hard for them to do the right thing day after day, when no one is tweeting about it.