As gig workers try to improve their working conditions, the Mozilla Foundation’s fourth annual report on internet health says they need to gather as much information as possible, while pointing out that gig companies control much of that data.
Workers who drive and deliver for Uber Technologies Inc.
Instacart and other app-based platform companies may enjoy some schedule flexibility, but they’re beholden to secret algorithms that determine where and how often they can find gigs, how much they get paid and more.
“Data rights are labor rights, especially when it comes to the gig economy,” Mozilla Foundation said in its report published Thursday, which for the first time includes a focus on gig work, which it calls one of three major threats to the health of the internet. Mozilla said 50 million people engage in gig work around the world.
Labor groups and others are conducting analyses and creating tools to try to combat the information imbalance, which can affect not only how much workers are paid but sometimes whether they work at all.
“Workers can lose access to their account by deactivation without reason or recourse,” Lauren Casey, organizer for Gig Workers Rising and Working Partnerships USA, told MarketWatch.
Jess Kutch, co-founder and co-executive director of Coworker.org, said in an interview with MarketWatch that many workers in the gig economy and beyond are “managed by algorithms that are invisible and quick-changing.”
Coworker.org was founded in 2013 as a campaigning platform for workers, but Kutch said “information asymmetry kept coming up for us over the years.”
So the nonprofit organization has conducted worker surveys and helped create tools like the Shopper Transparency Calculator. That app was used by Shipt delivery workers to determine that a new algorithm resulted in decreased wages for 40% of them, despite Shipt’s denials, according to the Mozilla report. Working Washington has a similar calculator for Instacart delivery workers.
Likewise, Driver’s Seat offers drivers and delivery workers an app that can track their work and earnings to try to help them maximize their take-home pay. The drivers co-op also offers that data to municipalities to help with transportation planning and policies.
Before Driver’s Seat launched the app, “we heard from hundreds of drivers that they were really struggling,” Hays Witt, co-founder and chief executive of Driver’s Seat, told MarketWatch. “They had been sold on this idea that they could be their own bosses and have lots of autonomy at work.”
But he said drivers found that their pay wasn’t what they thought it would be, something the Mozilla report points out is common in gig work because its business model “tends to rely on an oversupply of labor.”
“They were faced with a whole host of decisions,” Witt said. “‘Where should I go? Should I accept that order?’ That’s a complex set of decisions, and those variables are changing all the time.” The co-op’s app is meant to help them make informed decisions.
Similarly, a former Google employee, Charles Kemp, launched GigCompare last year with the goal of helping gig workers calculate and compare their earnings. Kemp told MarketWatch in October that he intends for GigCompare to be “like Glassdoor for the gig economy.”
The times we live in show how important such tools are, according to Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation. In 2020, “it was clearer than ever that internet health is human health,” he told MarketWatch. “[It affected] the health of our society and health of our democracy. Gig labor in particular is at the forefront of our minds. During the pandemic we relied so much more on gig workers and platforms.”
According to Surman, the “uneven balance of power” when it comes to who holds the data — the companies — is a problem for both consumers and workers, whether it’s Facebook Inc.’s
secretive algorithms that determine what content its users see, or Uber or Amazon.com Inc.
dictating that workers should “stay on the road longer or load packages as quickly as you can. [Artificial intelligence] makes them relentless managers.”
Surman added that workers (or consumers) can advocate for changes “if you can unmask that data and describe that to a human manager, to a court, to a regulator.” The Mozilla report notes that in Europe, drivers are using the General Data Protection Regulation to push for access to Uber’s data. Drivers could use California’s data-privacy law to push for access to their data from gig companies, he said.
The two other threats to internet health that Mozilla identified in its report: Built-in racial bias reinforcing discrimination, and a lack of Big Tech transparency leading to real-world harms, such as disinformation that leads to violence.