Benner on Tech: A Digital Labor Movement and Sony Schadenfreude

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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People are Talking About…

** There’s been a lot of handwringing about the on-demand labor practices used by Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit and other companies that match service providers with customers. These startups rely on contract labor - meaning that workers aren’t given the full benefits and rights of employees.

Who knows where the debate will lead, but it seems that a nascent digital labor movement is taking shape in the halls of academia (at The New School in New York City, natch). “Viewed from inside the bubble of New York, the paradox of digital labor these days is the way that tech enables the over-development of under-development,” McKenzie Wark, author of "A Hacker Manifesto, The Spectacle of Disintegration," said during a talk at the Digital Labor conference hosted by The New School.

Trebor Scholz, the chair of the New School’s conference series, "The Politics of Digital Culture," recently published a long Medium post in a similar vein. Scholz goes so far as to suggest that worker-owned cooperatives could provide the same services as the current suite of on-demand apps. He writes:

The stakes for the drivers are clear, the prerogative of VC-backed companies is short-term shareholder profit but when it comes to offering better working conditions, these startups cannot measure up… Why bother handing over the revenue to Uber, the middleman? Lyft and Uber have serious issues with attrition; the pay rates for drivers can (and have been) changed from one moment to the next, workplace surveillance is constant, and drivers can be “de– activated” (fired) at any time for digressions as small as criticizing the Uber mothership on Twitter.

Companies such as Uber and Lyft have been good at brushing aside labor practice concerns, and lots of drivers that I talk to have good experiences driving for the companies. Even so, it might be a good idea to keep workers' rights on the radar.

** Unrelated, but amazing…

Have you ever wanted to dive into the dark hearts of petty, egomaniacal media and entertainment impresarios and see what they really think about - people like Angelina Jolie and Megan Ellison, for example? Well now you can. The Sony hackers dredged up emails between producer Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal. It's a mean, nasty, sometimes grovel-y back and forth about the Steve Jobs biopic, a movie that won’t be nearly as entertaining as the full force of Rudin’s self-righteousness.

Ventureland

Bumble, the very Tinder-like dating app that was created by Whitney Wolfe, has launched. As you probably remember, Wolfe filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Tinder after she was pushed out of the company. She says her product isn’t about making a better Tinder, but about creating a better, more female-friendly way to judge people solely on their profile pictures so you can ask them out on dates.

Daily Dose of Uber…

** The company’s “industry-leading standards” for driver background checks have come under scrutiny, the New York Times reports. All it took was a hammer attack, a couple of alleged sexual assaults and a kidnapping…

** San Francisco and Los Angeles are suing the ride sharing service.

** Maybe Uber is creating a video game? Buzzfeed says that someone filed a trademark for a mobile game called Uberdrive. So, could I summon an Uber driver with my phone and then, while I wait for said driver to arrive, play a video game on my phone where I pretend to be an Uber driver?

Didi Dache, a Chinese taxi-hailing app, raised more than $700 million in a round led by sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings and Yuri Milner’s DST Global.

Lending Club is going public and Inc. magazine’s Maria Aspan wonders if the IPO will make fintech startups cool.

People and Personnel Moves

Otto Berkes, HBO’s chief technology officer, is leaving now that the cable network has decided to hire contractors to build its over-the-top streaming service. Fortune’s Erin Griffith broke the news and got a lot of the details about the internal battle associated with the decision, which reads more like "Game of Thrones" than an HBS management case study.

Shanley Kane, Silicon Valley’s loudest and most polarizing critic, speaks to Jason Pontin and the MIT Technology review. Her view on tech and Wall Street:

The technology industry sees itself as in rebellion against corporate America: not corrupt, not buttoned-up, not empty. In fact, a tech company can be as corrupt, soulless, and empty as any corporation, but being unprofessional helps us maintain the belief that we are somehow different from Wall Street.

Companies

Amazon…

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that Amazon’s warehouse workers couldn’t proceed with the lawsuit that they filed seeking to be paid for time spent in security checks at the end of the workday.

Apple…

Facebook…

The company mobile photo sharing app Instagram now has 300 million users, making it bigger than Twitter. Bloomberg's Sarah Frier reports that the service will also delete spam accounts and verify the accounts of brands and celebrities.

The company wants to save you from yourself.

Cybercrime Never Sleeps

So much Sony…

** Amy Pascal cannot catch a break. Emails unearthed by the hackers also reveal that she gave the go-ahead on a scene that depicts the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

** The company’s former chief security officer Jason Spaltro knew that security was weak way back in 2005, when an auditor found that the company had “deliberately engaged in insufficient digital security practices,” according to a story in the Blot. Spaltro was quoted in CIO magazine as saying:  “It’s a valid business decision to accept the risk (of a cyberattack)… I will not invest $10 million to avoid a possible $1 million loss.”

A 2008 pipeline blast in Turkey led the way for the sort of cyberwar that we find ourselves fighting today, according to a report by my colleagues Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley.

Pirate Bay was raided by Swedish local police in Stockholm, seizing servers, computers, and other equipment owned by the filing sharing site that’s often associated with piracy and copyright violations.

News and Notes 

Europe and Silicon Valley are in a heated war of business practices and cultures. The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Fairless has a nice feature on why the two sides can’t agree and what’s at stake for the tech companies.

Even privacy advocate Tim Berners-Lee thinks that Europe’s right to be forgotten rules are dangerous.

Journalism needs to find a new business model, and so far Silicon Valley hasn’t offered up much in the way of a viable alternative. But that could be because the media industry just refuses to be disrupted, argues the Guardian’s Emily Bell.

study of digital board directors -- i.e. board members who play a significant operating role in a digital company or those who have a digital operating role at a traditional company – found that digital directors skew younger than non-digital directors. More women have tech-related board seats too. The survey found that nearly a third of all digital directors are female. Only 18% of non-digital directors are women. The study was conducted by headhunting firm Russell Reynolds.

Connected cars know a lot about us, so big industry trade groups such as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers have come up with some privacy commitments that will hopefully make us a lot more comfortable with cars that record our every move.

Watch This

Travis Kalanick’s 2011 interview with This Week in Startups. In this oldie, but goodie, Kalanick talks about how former Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz invested in his early company Scour and then promptly tried to nuke him. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net