Uber sells Xchange, Lyft employees spied on riders, sexual harassment in the gig economy

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Hello and welcome to Oversharing, a newsletter about the proverbial sharing economy.

If you're returning from last week, thanks! If you're new, nice to have you! (Over)share the love and tell your friends to sign up here. This is issue ninety-one, published January 30, 2018.

**Programming note: I'll be in San Francisco next week and maybe longer for the Uber-Waymo trial (starting Feb. 5 unless they settle at the 11th hour). Hit me up if you want to hang out (oversharingstuff@gmail.com, ali@qz.com) and we'll see if we can make it happen.

Selling out.

Uber has sold Xchange, its troubled auto-leasing business that lost $9,000 a car, to car leasing and renting app Fair.com. Terms weren't disclosed, though a spokesperson for Fair told Reuters that the company financed the deal with equity and debt from a recent financing round and "bought every car in the portfolio that is subject to an active lease agreement." Last year, Fair also picked up the scrap parts from failed used-car marketplace Beepi.

There isn't a ton of information available about Fair, which is frequently described in media reports as a "stealth startup." The "about us" portion of its website is mostly photos of white men in suits and Oxford shirts, though if you scroll to the bottom you'll find three women. The "FAQ" has a little more information on how the service—"a forward-thinking alternative to traditional car ownership"—works, promising "high-quality, pre-owned and certified" cars, trucks, and SUVs from more than 30 brands, all less than six years old and with under 70,000 miles. The payments are made monthly, determined through a process that sounds somewhat sketchy:

Anyway, Fair has apparently partnered with Uber as its exclusive provider of long-term vehicle leases (30 or more days) in the US. You might think Uber would have tired of working with potentially shady dealers, but, lol. This one is Fair.

Institutionalize your intentions.

"I am absurdly lucky even to be writing this email," begins Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky's Jan. 25 "open letter to the Airbnb community," a meandering reflection on Airbnb's responsibilities and "intentions," prompted by a phone call Chesky received from an advisor:

A close advisor told me that now was the time to “institutionalize your intentions so that even as you grow, you can minimize what conflicts with your vision.” It made me realize that we should write down what we want to institutionalize before it’s too late. So I asked myself, if Joe, Nate and I were gone tomorrow, what would we want the world to know about Airbnb’s intentions?

I am not entirely sure what it means to "institutionalize your intentions," a dubiously alliterated piece of jargon, but to Chesky it is clearly a sort of pre-IPO manifesto for Airbnb, which, with a $31 billion valuation and revenue approaching $3 billion last year, isn't really a startup anymore and is expected to go public in the not-too-distant future.

His first objective is "We will have an infinite time horizon," or, focusing on long-term goals over short-term success. "We think that a company should survive to see the next century, not just the next quarter," Chesky writes. "A 21st-century company should eventually become a 22nd-century company." One advantage of being a private company is that you aren't beholden to quarterly earnings. In theory, that makes it easier to focus on long-term goals, because you aren't constantly stressed about next quarter's revenue target. Amazon's Jeff Bezos remains the rare CEO who convinced Wall Street to accept his company's razor-thin profit margins (and, for a long time, quarterly losses), which he justified as in the interest of long-term growth.

The second objective is "Serving all stakeholders," or, as Google used to say, "Don't be evil." The explicit stakeholders in this case are the company and its employees, Airbnb's global community of hosts and guests, and the places those hosts and guests frequent. (For example, there is a nod to "not negatively impacting housing" in "significantly" constrained markets.) But the message also seems directed at the implicit stakeholders: Airbnb's current investors, and the shareholders that will join once it goes public.

"We will probably never fully realize this vision, but we will die trying," Chesky says, and I can only assume he means of old age, since home-sharing is not a particularly violent business. He also appointed Ken Chenault, departing CEO of American Express, as Airbnb's first independent board member and announced plans for Airbnb's first annual stakeholder report.

Interestingly, this letter appeared two days after The Information reported on tensions between Chesky and Airbnb CFO Laurence Tosi, who seem to have different intentions they'd like to institutionalize. Tosi, per The Information, wants Airbnb to become more like a traditional travel firm and is angling to be COO or president of its "homes" division. Chesky wants to stick with unique, millennial-friendly products (see: "experiences") and currently oversees the homes business himself. They clashed over whether Airbnb should launch its own airline.

Again, the backdrop is Airbnb's eventual IPO:

[F]undamentally, the two differ over how to balance the financial stability needed to go public with Mr. Chesky’s desire to transform Airbnb into a more diversified travel firm, investing in areas that might not yield profits for awhile, people close to the company say.

And:

Investors are generally pleased with Mr. Tosi’s moves getting Airbnb ready for a potential 2019 public offering, when the company’s 10-year employee stock grant expires. The company now regularly reports financial performance data to investors and closes the books on time, an investor said. The CFO also would be in an important position to sell the company’s vision to potential public shareholders.

If Tosi is selling Airbnb's vision to Wall Street ahead of a public offering, then he has a say in that vision. If investors are pleased with Tosi's performance in getting Airbnb's financials in shape, then he has an even bigger say. The bigger Tosi's say is in Airbnb's vision, the more it becomes a threat to Chesky's. And if Airbnb's CEO has even a shred of doubt about his control over the company, it might explain the impulse to institutionalize his intentions right now.

Ungodly views.

Lyft, usually the good kid, got caught being bad:

Lyft is investigating whether employees abused access to its customers’ data, a spokeswoman said on Thursday, after a current or former Lyft employee anonymously alleged online that some employees had tracked Lyft rides taken by their romantic partners and pulled information about celebrities such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The allegations surfaced last week in Blind, an app that lets current and former tech employees gossip anonymously about their companies. The Blind poster, who claimed to be a former Lyft employee, described having "seen people look their exes up," "check to see if their significant other other went where they said," and "stalk attractive people they've met." "I'm sorry, this has bothered me way too long and it's gone unchanged for too long," the person wrote. "The abuse I've seen needs to be curbed and restricted."

A source who used to work with Lyft confirmed the allegations to TechCrunch: "Hell yes. I definitely looked at my friends' rider history and looked at what drivers said about them. I never got in trouble." Lyft said it's investigating the problem, while co-founders John Zimmer and Logan Green emailed employees about "shared responsibility to our users," and encouraged any who might have concerns to bring them to management or report them anonymously through the "Ethical Advocate" website.

The episode is reminiscent of an early scandal at Uber over "God View," a tool that let Uber employees track the location of all the Ubers in a city. Uber being Uber, it not only named this tool "God View," but also showed it off regularly as a party trick. It's unclear if Lyft has a name for its version of the tool, but the company at least seems to have had the good sense not to make a show of stalking riders to impress people at parties.

On-demand harassment.

Here is the New Yorker's Nathan Heller on the particular vulnerability of workers in the gig economy to sexual harassment:

[F]reelance workers are highly vulnerable. They have little institutional support and few, if any, supervisors. They are transient and easily replaceable as well. Those who gig with algorithmic ratings systems must stay on the good side of capricious clients. Others, who depend on word-of-mouth referrals, are obliged to embrace any gift horses that come.

Sexual harassment made headlines at Uber last year, but for employees at its headquarters and offices, not the 2 million people who drive cars and deliver food for it around the world. Plenty of these drivers have come forward with their own horror stories—here is one from just last week—but they've remained isolated anecdotes. No one has taken up their cause like they took up the cause of Susan Fowler and other female employees at Uber; no one has called Eric Holder's office to investigate or assigned Arianna Huffington to listen to their experiences.

Part of this is a problem we've discussed before—there's no good data on the gig economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics studied flexible "contingent" labor sporadically from 1995 to 2005. Then, a few years ahead of the current on-demand boom, its funding dried up. The BLS only recently refunded that survey, and has yet to release new data.

Sexual harassment is a thorny problem in traditional workplaces, common but for too long unaddressed, perpetuated by entrenched power differences between men and women. And in the gig economy? We don't even know who these people are or what their jobs look like, much less how much they're being harassed. The power gap between workers and "managers" is even greater. The jobs put drivers and couriers and handymen into contact with real people, but the experience is mediated by an algorithm, not a human. The barrier to filing a complaint and getting it seen by someone other than a run-of-the-mill support rep is high, and the company's interest in dedicating resources to sorting it out is low. The potential consequences for complaining include "deactivation," which, in tech-platform speak, means "you're fired."

Elsewhere: "To Be 'Uber-y Enough' for a Job, You Best Be a Dude, Woman Claims."

Other stuff.

Uber proposes portable benefits; labor fears it's a Trojan horse. Uber CEO praises leaks that led to change at Uber. Benchmark drops suit against Travis Kalanick. Wag! raises $300 million from SoftBank. Postmates Gets It. Amazon cuts jobs in Amazon Restaurants. New York bus drivers want cars out of their lanes. Via expands to New York's five boroughs. Ola takes on Uber in Australia. We're Asking the Wrong Question About Self-Driving Cars. Alabama senate passes ride-hailing legislation. Johns Hopkins partners with Lyft. An Uber driver answers rider questions. Uber links drivers with ad agencies in Singapore. Americans warm up to driverless cars. Chelsea landlord sued for Airbnb'ing rent-stabilized units. Amazon interested in acquiring bulk grocery service Boxed. Fiverr acquires And Co software for freelancers. HomeShare raises $5.7 million for shared luxury apartments. French ride-share startup Heetch gets $20 million. Ford files patent for autonomous police car. Amazon seeks patent for autonomous package delivery cart. Turo "stunned" by complaint from San Francisco airport. Postmates settlement payouts vary by state. Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Fenton dating Jack Dorsey's ex. Rent the terrace. Floating retirement homes. "Parennialls."


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