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Why Uber and Lyft are taking a page out of big tobacco’s playbook in labor law battle | Uber

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Uber and Lyft are waging a scorched-earth regulatory battle to avoid providing basic benefits to their drivers, now considered essential workers, in their largest US market: California. In response to a lawsuit by the California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, a judge found the companies’ drivers to be employees and ordered Uber and Lyft to act accordingly – including by providing a living wage, unemployment benefits, state-mandated sick leave and full reimbursements for expenses like cleaning and personal protective equipment.

The companies have responded by threatening to lay off tens of thousands of workers. Their goal is to extend the crisis until November, when Proposition 22, a referendum written and sponsored by the gig companies, will be voted on. Prop 22 would create a special exemption from California employment laws just for these companies, while also pre-empting local regulation. The companies have taken a page from big tobacco’s political playbook to avoid complying with wage laws and basic aspects of the social safety net in exchange for the labor of their majority immigrant and people-of-color workforce.

Like the tobacco companies, gig companies have spent millions of dollars to directly and indirectly challenge independent research that is critical of the companies. They pay for their own self-serving studies. They also manipulate the media, spend record-setting amounts to lobby legislators, create faux grassroots movements (also called astroturfing) to carry their message, and pay lip service to social justice issues to obscure their true motivations. They have even used their access to riders and drivers – through email, text and in-app messaging – to sway the voting public.

A recent investigative report reveals that the Prop 22 campaign and their supporters (with or without assistance of the gig companies themselves) have also leveraged another political tactic for which big tobacco is notorious: attacking and harassing critics, including academics and government officials.

I have been on the receiving end of these harassment and attacks.

I am a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, and for nearly a decade, have done both legal research and ethnographic fieldwork studying self-organized drivers in California’s taxi and ride-hailing industries. I have published extensively in academic journals and media on the topic. My expertise, policy recommendations and central empirical findings – which highlight how and why Uber and Lyft drivers live devastatingly precarious lives – have been used in regulatory and enforcement contexts around the world.

However, since February of this year – the same month that the companies amped up the $110m Prop 22 campaign payments to public relations and political opposition research firms – I became subjected to a relentless stream of online and offline attacks. In March, during the second week of California’s pandemic lockdown, my home address was posted online by a Prop 22 supporter. Two weeks later, a series of articles about me and my family (full of conjecture and misinformation) were posted on a rightwing blog, a spinoff of the Washington Times. In late July, my university received a massive public records act request for my emails and text messages from one of the campaign’s research firms (MB Public Affairs, previously hired by Altria, formerly known as Philip Morris). A supporter of the campaign later filed a bogus complaint of illegal lobbying against me (I do not take money for my advocacy). And then, bizarrely, the campaign’s Twitter account directly abetted my online harassment.

Some of this has been horrendous; some of it has just been a hassle. But taken together, it has been overwhelming – an aggressive attempt to silence a critical, independent academic voice.

But too much is on the line, in both California and beyond, for me to be silent in this moment.

In practice, Proposition 22 would permanently codify a third, substandard regulatory category for California ride-hail and delivery workers, in between employees and independent businesspersons.

Under the measure, these workers would lack the bargaining power of true independent contractors, who commonly set their own rates, build client lists and decide how to do their work – here, think of a plumber who runs their own business.

But, if Prop 22 is successful, they would also lack the protections of employment status, including a guaranteed wage floor for all the time they spend laboring, workers’ compensation if they are hurt on the job, and state unemployment insurance if they lose their job through no fault of their own (ie because of Covid-19). The campaign’s suggestion that workers will get “historic” new benefits like discrimination protection are a mirage, since the measure fails to protect against multiple forms of discrimination (eg, immigration status) and fails to define how a worker would enforce these rights, making them dead letter protections.

Meanwhile, the companies would save billions of dollars, while taxpayers foot the bill. In California, alone, Uber and Lyft have already avoided an estimated $413m in state unemployment insurance taxes between 2014 and 2019. And in the middle of a pandemic in which they are considered “essential workers”, only a fraction of the workforce would get healthcare subsidies. If passed, similar legislation has the potential to spread well beyond the state and the sector, dismantling the limited employment protections workers across the nation depend upon. Indeed, in coalition with companies like Amway and Kelly Services, this is the industry’s long-term plan.

So, what does big tobacco’s political script tell us about what we can expect next from gig companies?

In 1954, the tobacco industry paid to publish the Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers in hundreds of US newspapers. The statement said that the public’s health was the industry’s primary concern. Similar to the piece published recently in the New York Times by Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, the tobacco companies promised and proposed a variety of good faith changes.

What followed for the tobacco industry, however, were decades of deceit and regulatory influence that ultimately cost millions of lives. When Mr Khosrowshahi took over as Uber CEO in 2017, he pledged to run a different company with a different work culture – no more Kalanick-era lawlessness, no more harassment, no more toxicity. But for the drivers of the company, very little changed; if anything, working conditions got worse as wages dropped and they had to work longer and harder to earn the same amount. Transitioning from private ownership to being publicly traded has not changed the company’s aggressive avoidance of the law and “breaking things” to get what they want. Drivers, regulators and the public cannot wait any longer for good faith changes.

Trying to legalize a new, substandard tier of work, especially for a largely minority workforce in the context of a raging pandemic and growing economic inequality, is not reasonable or good policy.

And no matter how hard they try, no one will stop me from saying it.

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Parler website partially returns with support from Russian-owned technology firm | Social media

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Parler, the social network popular with Donald Trump supporters, has partially returned online with the help of a Russian-owned technology company.

The network vanished from the internet after it was dropped by Amazon’s hosting arm and other partners over a lack of moderation after its users called for violence and posted videos glorifying the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January.

On Monday, Parler’s website was reachable again, though only with a message from its chief executive, John Matze, saying he was working to restore functionality.

The internet protocol (IP) address it used is owned by DDos-Guard, which is controlled by two Russian men and provides services including protection from distributed denial of service attacks, infrastructure expert Ronald Guilmette told Reuters.

DDoS-Guard’s other clients include the Russian ministry of defence, as well as media organisations in Moscow. Until recently, it offered 8kun – which was previously known as 8chan – protection from DDoS. Last week, DDoS-Guard became the latest company to cut ties with 8kun’s hosting company, VanwaTech, following inquiries from the Guardian.

If Parler’s “free speech” website is fully restored, users would be able to see and post comments. Most users prefer the app, however, which remains banned from the official Apple and Google stores.

Matze and representatives of DDoS-Guard did not reply to requests for comment.

On Wednesday last week, Matze told Reuters the company was in talks with multiple service providers but declined to elaborate.

DDoS-Guard was registered in 2017 under a limited partnership, a financial structure in Scotland that allows nonresidents to create companies with little scrutiny. Aleksei Likhachev and Evgeniy Marchenko, two Russian businessmen who registered it, remain owners of the company. The partnership under which DDoS-Guard is registered is called Cognitive Cloud and is listed at an address in Edinburgh’s Forth Street.

Speaking from the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don last week, Marchenko told the Guardian DDoS-Guard was a global information security service that hosted “thousands of websites”.

Parler critics said it was a potential security risk for it to depend on a Russian company, as well as an odd choice for a site popular with self-described patriots.

Russian propaganda has stoked political divisions in the United States, supporting Trump and amplifying false narratives about election fraud but also protests against police brutality.

Parler, which disclosed it has more than 12 million users, sued Amazon last week after the cloud services provider cut off service, citing poor moderation of calls to violence.

In an update on Monday, Parler.com linked to a Fox News interview in which Matze said he was “confident” Parler would return at the end of January.

With Reuters


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Facebook claims it does not conduct business in Australia in Cambridge Analytica appeal | Technology

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Facebook is claiming it does not conduct business in Australia and does not collect and hold data in the country in its effort to avoid liability over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Last year, the privacy commissioner took Facebook to court over an alleged mass privacy breach involving the use of Australians’ Facebook data in a vote-influencing operation involving Cambridge Analytica, a company that assisted the Trump campaign and was then headed by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon.

The court action came two years after revelations in the Guardian and Observer that 50m Facebook users worldwide had their names, dates of birth, emails, city locations, friends lists, page likes and – in some cases – messages harvested to build powerful software that could predict and shape voter choices.

The information was gathered through a personality quiz app named “This is your digital life”, which collected the data of those who downloaded the app and their unwitting friends.

Only 53 people in Australia installed the app, according to court documents, but it was able to harvest the data of 311,127 Australians in total.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has accused Facebook of serious and repeated breaches of privacy law by leaving its users exposed to having their data sold and “used for purposes including political profiling, well outside users’ expectations”.

The case was brought against Facebook Inc, based in Delaware, and Facebook Ireland, meaning that the OAIC had to convince a court it had a prima facie case that both offshore companies carried out business in Australia and may have contravened Australia’s privacy laws.

Facebook’s parent company, Facebook Inc, has repeatedly fought the suggestion it does business in Australia, and lost.

As part of its case, it argued that it does not collect or hold data on Australian users in Australia.

That argument was rejected by Justice Thomas Thawley in September, who found Facebook Inc did collect and store information in Australia, through caching servers located here and through the installation and operation of cookies on Australian devices.

Thawley also found the company conducted business in Australia by providing local app developers with what is known as the Graph Application Programming Interface – a piece of software allowing apps to request personal information from Facebook users.

Now, Facebook is seeking to appeal Thawley’s ruling to the full bench of the federal court.

Court documents show it is arguing that “substantial injustice” would be caused if it is not given leave to appeal to the court.

Facebook says the appeal examines “important questions” about how privacy laws define what it means to carry on business in Australia and “collect” or “hold” personal information.

The OAIC did not comment on Facebook’s latest appeal.

But in September, following its success in the federal court, the regulator said:

“While these matters remain to be established at trial, the court held the matters were sufficiently arguable to justify service outside of Australia and subjecting Facebook Inc to proceedings in Australia.”

Facebook was approached for comment.


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GitHub apologizes for firing employee who warned of Capitol attack Nazi link | Technology

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GitHub, a technology firm owned by Microsoft, apologized on Sunday for what its COO, Erica Brescia, called “significant errors in judgment” following outrage that it had fired an employee, who is Jewish, for warning that “Nazis” were among the pro-Donald Trump mob who attacked the US Capitol on 6 January.

“In light of these findings, we immediately reversed the decision to separate with the employee and are in communication with his representative,” Brescia wrote in a blogpost. “To the employee, we wish to say publicly: we sincerely apologize.”

According to Insider, which first reported the firing, the tech firm terminated the employee two days after he predicted the insurrection’s potential Nazi links in a company chat room. The message allegedly cautioned “stay safe homies, Nazis are about”.

The firing garnered immediate outcry among staff. In response, GitHub hired an outside firm to investigate. The findings, released on Friday, revealed the procedural errors resulting in the tech company offering the employee his job back, and its head of human resources stepping down on Saturday.

Employees later circulated a letter demanding that the company answer questions about the worker’s termination, while also calling on them to denounce white supremacy.

In Sunday’s blogpost, GitHub noted that the executive acknowledged that “employees are free to express concerns about Nazis, antisemitism, white supremacy or any other form of discrimination or harassment” in an earlier statement shared with employees.

“It was appalling last week to watch a violent mob, including Nazis and white supremacists, attack the US Capitol,” the post noted the company’s CEO, Nat Friedman, had said. “That these hateful ideologies were able to reach the sacred seat of our democratic republic in 2021 is sickening.”


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