Uber, the controversial corporate employer masquerading as a “ride-sharing” service, has recently stirred up more controversy with new revelations about its Greyball program for circumventing enforcement of local taxicab monopolies. Greyball maintains a database of likely local government officials. This database is populated by users who frequently open and close the Uber app near government buildings, use institutional credit cards, or own cheap brands of phone that tend to be bought in bulk for sting operations. After determining which users are likely to be government officials, Greyball sends this group a dummy version of the app populated by fake drivers.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. Local medallion taxi monopolies need to be circumvented; they are a way of limiting competition and therefore guaranteeing monopoly profits to the companies that hold such licenses. Taxi licensing has been used for years to prevent ordinary people from using the spare capacity of their own cars to earn money transporting people. Without the pernicious effects of licensing, this activity would be a low-risk, low-overhead source of additional income from self-employment. Since offering transportation services is limited to licensed taxi companies, the only way to legally make money from driving people around is to be hired for wages on terms set by a capitalist employer.
The problem is that Uber is just another employer. It is simply another monopoly that needs to be circumvented. Uber uses “intellectual property” law to enforce ownership of its proprietary app, treat drivers as de facto employees, and skim off a large percentage of drivers’ earnings.
Ideally, this service should be able to interact with Uber and pirate its database of passengers and drivers. Ironically, Uber has inadvertently provided a model of how to circumvent their own monopoly.
An open-source, pirated version of Uber — owned and controlled by the users themselves — can use something like Greyball to evade enforcement of the local cab licensing monopolies like Uber does. It can also evade Uber’s own attempts to enforce ownership rights over its proprietary walled-garden platform.
Traditional taxicab medallion systems and Uber’s proprietary platform may compete with each other, but they are really just two different versions of the same thing: the use of state power to limit competition, guarantee profits, and force ordinary people to work for capitalists instead of themselves. It’s time to follow Uber’s example and use free software to destroy not only the antiquated taxi monopolies, but Uber’s as well.
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