Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions

Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

October 11, 2017
9 min read

‘As an open platform, anyone can use our platform no matter who they are, where they live, and what they believe… This is why you’ll see an extremely wide range of petitions, as they’ve all been created by people in the community.’ Ben Rattray, founder and CEO of Change.org

Uber’s huge online petition, hosted by Change.org, protested the removal of its London licence for refusal to comply with safety concerns. At first glance, the petition looked like an emphatic show of support by citizens for a cab company popular for its low fares. Yet the e-petition raises serious questions about contemporary civil society, transparency and corporate power.

Uber’s petition demonstrates how large companies can manipulate democracy through contemporary modes of political participation – and also reveals some uncomfortable contradictions in the business model of the petition platform Change.org.

Uber’s lobbying strategy

It’s first worth putting Uber’s ‘mass’ and ‘viral’ online mobilisation in context. Uber faces significant challenges in convincing people and politicians that the problems caused by the platform are worth the cheap fares and precarious jobs.

The controversy is not just about Transport for London’s concerns over safety. Problems also include the welfare of drivers without rights to sick, holiday or parental pay, and their vulnerability to being removed from the platform or pay reduced without any accountability or consultation. The long-term sustainability of the platform itself, which runs at a significant loss, is also under question – this too puts drivers’ pay and continued employment at risk.

In response to these challenges, the company has developed a wider political strategy that has given the firm a reputation for ignoring, defying or co-opting elected politicians the world over. After a ban in Germany, Uber simply carried on operating until the ban was lifted. The firm spends vast amounts of money on lobbying politicians behind closed doors.

Uber’s petition on Change.org
Their use of online petitions on platforms marketed as progressive is just an extension of this extensive PR and lobbying work, and it appears to be part of Uber’s standard strategy for pushing back against regulation. The company initiates petitions on its own behalf, for its own interests, either hosted on its own website or on Change.org. We found examples in numerous North American cities and states (e.g. Dallas, Seattle, Houston, Baltimore, Chicago, San Antonio, Calgary, Pennsylvania, Portland) as well as many other countries (Denmark, Spain, India).

It also promotes these petitions aggressively, through its access to user data, drivers and mass marketing. Uber customers are mass emailed asking them to sign the petition, Uber drivers have been instructed to sign petitions with emails and splash screens, and app users receive notifications. Uber even promote their petitions using Google advertising space (we found these by accident when searching for information about Uber). Far from being a spontaneous ‘viral’ exercise, mass marketed and widely promoted petitions are part of a wider strategy to maintain market position.

Petitioning for profit

The corporate use of petitions already contradicts a basic premise of grassroots organising. Petitions have a long history as a mode of participation allowing ordinary people with a grievance to collectively address political actors and hold them accountable: particularly important for those without other recourse to political action. The Chartists petitioned parliament to demand the right to vote, while the petition to free Nelson Mandela from political imprisonment allowed international civil society to address South Africa’s apartheid regime.

The internet has revolutionised petitions, lowering the costs for producing and administering them, which has led to a host of mainly non-profits (eg. 38 Degrees, SumOfUs and Avaaz) as well as public platforms (such as the UK parliament’s own petition website), and a rise in the use of petitions as a mode of participation easy to engage with and cheap to administrate.

Change.org, however, also allows huge corporations a platform on the site, giving them the opportunity to orchestrate civil society methods to advance their agenda alongside the usual campaigns started by ordinary citizens. And the idea of the petition as a democratic, bottom-up tool for demanding social change is further thrown into question by Change.org’s other practices, which suit Uber’s aggressive political strategy rather well.

Unusually for a petitions website, Change.org Inc is a for-profit company rather than a charity and, following a controversial change of direction in 2012 after hosting a union-busting organisation’s petition, it became the only petitions site to stop filtering causes (apart from excluding hate speech), thus opening up the platform to anyone and everyone – including corporations and conservative organisations with a rather different agenda to those of citizens.

Yet it’s the site’s business model that must really appeal to Uber, as despite now refusing direct advertisements, Change.org allows ‘supporters’ (anyone) the opportunity to ‘chip in to help specific campaigns get seen by more people’ (‘promoted petitions’). Like Facebook advertising, promoting a petition means an increase in visibility.

Of course, ‘chipping in’ if you are a company worth $62 billion gives the corporate petition a significant advantage over the rest of us – certainly the traditional petition, where ‘going viral’ depends on the work of citizens and the level of commitment of its adherents. A lack of transparency on the part of Change.org means we can’t know just how much Uber, or any other company that might want to run a petition, has paid. This makes it hard to trust petitions and evaluate their significance.

Might a company that carries out screenings for the NHS have ‘chipped in’ to a petition asking that routine cancer screenings are carried out at a younger age? Might a building company be ‘chipping in’ to a petition on the building of more homes? While these may seem relatively benign scenarios, the point is that the platform model could give added weight to campaigns backed by corporations who happen to share a single goal with an individual – or perhaps more problematically, as could be the case with Uber, it offers them the potential to buy a successful campaign all of their own. Thanks to the opacity of the platform, we’ll never know.

Corporatising democracy

Change.org argues that these features allow a win-win situation. Its commitment to democracy, it suggests, is furthered by its openness to petitions begun by anyone. Oddly, their characterisation of petitions as set up by ‘people in the community’ includes the UK head of Uber Tom Elvidge, who initiated the London petition.

More insight into Change.org Inc’s vision comes from further statements of its CEO Ben Rattray, in the context of having raised $25 million after a funding round (investors were largely drawn from the tech sector, perhaps drawn to Change.org’s access to rich user data (see their privacy policy). He said: ‘This investment is recognition that there’s an opportunity to democratise democracy in the same way that we’ve democratised everything from media and communications to commerce to, increasingly, transportation… It’s about lowering the barriers to entry in industries that traditionally are difficult to participate in.’

This is quite a novel understanding of democracy. Rattray’s vision of democracy appears to refer to a new company’s right to corporate advantage in an ‘industry that is difficult to participate in’ (ie. regulated), and extends citizenship to corporate actors. In the case of Uber, the ‘democracy’ also comes from the company using its own drivers and customers as proxy voters against regulators in theory answerable to an entire population.

The Uber London ban and petition is part of a shift in the way transportation is organised, one that may not, as the evidence suggests, be sustainable. Yet it seems clear Uber will continue to fight legislation here and all over the world to guarantee its investors a return. There is potential for innovation around ‘sharing’ to use resources and deliver services in a way that is more responsive to our needs and more accountable to workers and consumers – but this isn’t it.

The petition controversy highlights another attempted shift: to radically change the meaning of civil society and the traditional tools of citizen participation by ‘opening them up’, ‘democratising’ them – to businesses. The growth of online civil society platforms can empower people who otherwise don’t have a voice in democracies largely unaccountable to their populations. However, the Uber Change.org petition suggests they can further entrench corporate power, ensuring that here, as elsewhere in contemporary democracies, businesses will enjoy huge advantages over ordinary people.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


23