Technology

Uber is spamming users with political push notifications ahead of a key gig worker vote

Unwanted smartphone notifications are always a pain in the app, but not often are these messages so nakedly political as the latest batch sent out by Uber in California.

Uber is one of a number of gig economy firms currently waging a $186 million campaign against a Californian state law that requires them to classify their workers as employees (with all the attendant benefits and rights). To try and avoid this, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and others have pushed a ballot proposal known as Proposition 22 or Prop 22 that would exempt them from the law, and are in turn pushing their users to vote in their favor.

True to its reputation, Uber seems to be taking a particularly aggressive stance. Earlier this month, users in California had to “confirm” they’d seen a message before calling a ride, which told them wait times and prices would rise if Prop 22 wasn’t passed (the text was later changed to “continue to ride” to avoid confusion). Now, Uber’s app is sending users in California push notifications with the message that “Prop 22 will save lives.”

On social media, many Uber users complained about the notifications, pointing out that they seem to be breaking Apple’s App Store rules. The iPhone maker’s app developer agreement (section 4.5.3) forbids sending “unsolicited message to customers, including […] Push Notifications” (though Apple itself seems to break this rule as and when it pleases). We’ve reached out to the iPhone maker to see if Uber’s notifications are kosher under App Store guidelines, and will update this story if we hear more.

The vote on Prop 22 will appear on the general election ballot on November 3rd, and will likely have a huge effect on the future of gig economy work in the US.

Since their inception, companies like Uber have argued that workers benefit from a status as freelance contractors, which gives them the opportunity to work flexible hours. Undeniably, though, this also benefits the companies hugely, allowing them to cut costs at what are often loss-making businesses. They get a ready supply of labor, but don’t have to shell out for things like medical insurance and paid time off that many full-time employees are entitled to. Research has shown, though, that most gig economy workers are effectively full-time employees already, with nearly three-quarters working more than 30 hours a week, according to one study.

Prop 22 doesn’t outright reject the need for these workers to have access to greater benefits. Indeed, as reported by The New York Times, the ballot would offer “some wage guarantees and a pool of money that certain workers could use for health care costs and sick days.” But many think these guarantees are not enough. One study, which Uber and Lyft have disputed, calculated that Prop 22 only guarantees workers $5.64 an hour after expenses and down time are accounted for.

Uber and other gig companies are framing the new law as something of an existential threat to their businesses. From that point of view, a push notification — no matter how annoying — is worth sending out if it persuades even a few voters. When reached by The Verge for comment, Uber said only that the app was “sharing the voice of tens of thousands of drivers, 72% of whom support Prop 22 with millions of riders in California and keeping them informed of the stakes on this issue.” (The survey Uber linked to has been called “highly biased and problematic” by critics of Prop 22.)