The Massive Overreaction To Uber's Response To JFK Protests

from the calm-down-people dept

Okay, let’s start this out by admitting that there are plenty of reasons that people really dislike Uber, and I know that some people have a kneejerk hatred for the company. For a variety of reasons, in some people’s minds, Uber represents the very worst of Silicon Valley. While I do think that the company has had some issues — especially around privacy — many of the complaints around Uber have been greatly exaggerated or distorted. But none have been quite as ridiculously distorted and exaggerated as the online reaction Saturday night to Uber’s decision to drop its infamous “surge pricing” at JFK due to protests there. That resulted in a “#DeleteUber” hashtag going viral and being passed around by many, many people — including many of my friends who I normally agree with on most things.

The whole thing doesn’t make any sense to me and seemed quite ridiculously unfair to Uber (and, sure, some will argue that the company deserves whatever shit it gets, but to me it lessens people’s credibility when they throw a fit over something where it appears they took things entirely out of context). So here’s the background. As you are, by now, no doubt aware, on Saturday night there were protests all around the US, mainly at major airports, concerning people who were arriving from overseas at those airports, and being barred (or worse, sent back on other flights) in response to President Trump’s new executive order concerning individuals born in seven particular countries. As part of this, the NY Taxi Workers Association announced a one-hour work stoppage to protest the executive order:

That afternoon, entirely separate from this, Uber announced that it had turned off surge pricing at JFK:

This resulted in many people assuming that this was Uber “breaking the strike” and basically undermining the protest message made by the NYC taxi drivers. And with many people already predisposed to dislike Uber, a meme was born. This was complicated even further by the fact that Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, is on one of Donald Trump’s “economic councils.” Some argued that it meant that he was supportive of Trump and all of Trump’s plans, even as Kalanick made it clear that he didn’t support the plan and planned to use his access to tell Trump why the plan was bad. But, it didn’t matter. Tons and tons of people started tweeting that Uber was evil for supporting Trump and “breaking the strike.”

But this makes no sense. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that no matter what Uber did, some people would have likely twisted it into being a way to bash Uber. Here were the options:

  • Leave surge pricing in place: People would still argue that Uber “broke the strike” and, even worse, they’d argue that the “greedy” company was “profiteering” off of it by charging much higher rates. Dropping surge pricing actually decreases the supply of drivers, decreases the profit for the company and actually doesn’t help Uber very much, because it means longer waits and fewer riders and drivers.
  • Stop offering service to/from JFK: People would argue that this was Uber actively working to stop people from getting to the protests, especially since there was a period of time when the police were blocking the AirTrain, which is JFK’s main connection to the NYC subway system.
  • Stay silent: If only that were possible. My twitter feed over the weekend was full of reporters from major publications tweeting out over and over again their demands from basically every tech company to put out a statement or do something. And, indeed, Uber’s CEO had sent out an email making it pretty clear that he didn’t support the executive order at all, and that they were actively looking to help Uber drivers who were impacted by all of this.

And then, of course, there was the final option, which was dropping surge pricing, which was probably (quite reasonably!) seen inside the company as a show of support for the protestors, in that they were making it cheaper for people to get to and from JFK to take part in the protests.

I brought this point up with some on Twitter, and their response was that even if it was well intentioned, it didn’t matter, because the impact was to “undermine” the work stoppage. That’s also silly. Of all things, my undergrad degree is actually in labor relations, and that included multiple semesters of labor history and studying all sorts of things related to work stoppages and the like. When the point of a work stoppage is to push for better wages, then obviously, scabs or breaking a strike, is reasonably problematic to that strategy. But that’s not what the NYC taxicab drivers were doing. They weren’t making Donald Trump’s life any harder (I’m reasonably assuming, he wasn’t waiting for a cab from Terminal 4). What they were doing was a symbolic protest to make it widely know that they don’t approve. And they accomplished that mission. Uber’s decision had no impact on it (and, arguably, drew more attention to the protest).

So, sure, if you don’t like Uber for this, that, or the other thing, feel free to continue to dislike Uber for those reasons. But if you deleted your Uber app because you thought it somehow “broke the strike,” you massively overreacted and got sucked in by a meme that involved taking things out of context and misrepresenting reality.

Admittedly, there was one thing that Uber could have done, and didn’t — which was the strategy that its main competitor Lyft did take: announcing plans to donate $1 million to the ACLU (over the course of four years) directly in response to the executive order. This is actually a really great move by Lyft, and kudos to them. Kalanick later announced a $3 million “legal” fund to help Uber drivers, but that’s not quite the same thing. Directly donating to organizations that will fight the executive order is a great thing and Lyft deserves lots of kudos for it — but it’s still a bit silly to argue that every company had to take that step to not be the target of a massive negative campaign.

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Companies: lyft, uber

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Comments on “The Massive Overreaction To Uber's Response To JFK Protests”

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Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Surge-pricing is an illegal practice equivalent to price-gouging. No amount of deflection and propaganda will cover the stench coming out of uber.

Well, first off, you’re wrong. Price gouging has very specific characteristics and surge pricing doesn’t match them. Second, there are strong, and compelling, arguments that price gouging laws are actually dangerous and do much more harm than good.

But, most importantly, if that’s your argument, shouldn’t you be happy beyond all belief that Uber DROPPED its surge pricing for this situation?

Or are you just a kneejerk "uberevil" kind of person?

D Palmer says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Well, aside from the fact that every assertion you make is provably wrong, great contribution.”

Says the person who then fails to refute even one of the points he/she so blithely dismisses out of hand.

Over 1 billions Muslims still have access to the US (subject to ordinary restrictions). How exactly does temporarily (or even permanently) excluding people from 7 specific countries, not all of whom are Muslim BTW, amount to a ban on Muslims?

Joel says:

Dropping surge pricing

When or under which circumstances does Uber usually drop surge pricing, if ever?

I’m trying to figure out what the relative probabilites are of Uber doing this as a form of protest, a form of relief for people stranded due to the taxi strike, a measure to evade a public relations disaster by profiting off the strike with hightened surges or any other possibilities.

From the wording of the tweet I’m currently thinking they were defensive, probably trying to avoid bad press more than hoping for good press

dropcap (profile) says:

Re: Dropping surge pricing

The situations where they’ll restrict surge pricing are at the top of the second page of their agreement with the NY Attorney General, which they voluntarily made federal policy.
Full agreement is here, but basically blackouts, strikes, wars, weather emergencies, etc, they’re required to cap their surge pricing, although not to drop it altogether.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Dropping surge pricing

Why is it that every time a group of unwashed hipsters gets in a snit these days, everyone is supposed to bend over backward in support of them and their “message” and if you don’t, if you just carry on with your life and your business as you normally would, you’re somehow Satan or Hitler or some goddam thing?

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Dropping surge pricing

Authoritarianism is everybody’s problem. As is exceptionalism.

I’m sick and tired of everybody and their dog claiming the moral/intellectual/whatever high ground because they or the group they’re in are somehow very special and therefore deserving of accommodation to the point of self-immolation on our part.

Yes, the ban is ridiculous; if people have already been vetted let them in but don’t turn it into an opportunity to bully people who, for whatever reason, disagree with you. When people stop trying to control each other this madness will end.

yaga (profile) says:


It seems that everyone is really missing that the taxi drivers said their strike was going to be from 6PM to 7PM. At 7:30ish PM Uber sends out it’s tweet. The strike was over.

But as Mike said there’s just a lot of people that really want to slam Uber. There’s also a lot of celebs that want to make it look like they are standing up for people but instead just showing why they should stay out of politics.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Timing?

said their strike was going to be from 6PM to 7PM. At 7:30ish PM Uber sends out it’s tweet. The strike was over.

That’s when they sent the tweet. But what really matters is when they turned off surge pricing. When was that?

But as Mike said there’s just a lot of people that really want to slam Uber.

So? You are implying that their reasons are illegitimate simply because they have reasons. That’s the worst kind of circular logic.

Even if Uber didn’t act in callous anti-solidarity here, the fact that it was the last straw for some people does not invalidate their complaints with all the other straws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Timing?

Not jumping on every protester’s bandwagon doesn’t make one “callous”

However, taking specific action to oppose the “bandwagon” is callous.

Your posts here seem to be of the type that try to imply meaning from semantics. That’s the tactic of someone who knows the facts don’t support their argument. I suppose its better than relying on alt-facts though.

Ninja (profile) says:

When the price surges, more drivers may be compelled to go to the streets easing the lack of proper offer and decreasing the wait time. So it’s a reasonable tool to work with. More demand, more expensive. Seems like basic free market.

So, when things would get ugly and the price would surge, Uber decided NOT to allow it and to make it cheaper to those who wanted to go to the protests and to those who wanted to get the hell out of the boiling areas. It not only helped the cause but it also helped those that just wanted to get home. The former got to go to the protests spending the same of a regular ride and the latter could go home safely without spending tons. It’s a win-win scenario.

Seems to me they lost money in the process. Why would they do it if not to help people?

Anonymous Coward says:

I think these are interesting points, but I disagree with Mike’s closing argument about Lyft. I think one important aspect that competition allows is the ability to vote with your money. Deleting Uber because it didn’t donate millions of dollars is a valid reason imo. In an age where companies have a large sway on politics, they don’t compete with just product but also policy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Good intent, bad execution

Your complaint is one that people have been making since the first time humans ever protested. Its basically concern trolling.

There is no time or place for protest that can be both a) acceptable to everyone, and b) meaningful

The only protests that are deemed acceptable by majority groups, and majorities within groups, are the ones that are functionally irrelevant — protests with no related context, no audience, no disruption, and no chance of coverage. Protest more or less requires disruption to be relevant. If you are asking people of color to be less relevant to make you more comfortable, you are not trying to help them, you’re trying to silence them.

TechDescartes (profile) says:

Irrational Numbers

Excellent post, Mike. I had the same thoughts. I will add just a few.

People apparently no longer understand what it means to “break” a strike. If the taxi companies hired Uber drivers to drive their yellow cabs and fill the empty taxi lane at JFK Terminal 4, that would be “strike breaking”. What happened here was merely consumers choosing a non-striking service.

Of course, Uber drivers were free to go on their own strike if they had wanted. But imagine if Uber had ordered a shutdown of its service. For one hour, it would force its drivers to receive no income, not by their choice but by Uber’s. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people effectively would have their means of income taken away for an hour.

But isn’t that what the taxi drivers did? No, they elected union bosses to make that decision for them. The taxi companies didn’t decide for the drivers. And the drivers presumably got paid for the missed hour of work from the union account set aside for funding strikes. Equating the two is dishonest at worst and unfair at best.

Finally, if people decide to use some non-striking company for the same service and it renders a strike powerless, that merely demonstrates that the striking union has lost its market power. We all knew that Uber (and Lyft) had decimated the taxi industry. We just didn’t realize how nearly complete that decimation was.

P.S. As the only permitted reaction to rational thought in today’s marketplace of ideas apparently is to do something irrational, I must now #DeleteTechDirt. Sorry, Mike. Next time, don’t be so rational.

P.P.S. I’ll be back tomorrow … just like all the protesters who will reinstall their Uber app the next time they need a ride.

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

Re: Irrational Numbers

Thank you so much for pointing this out! The thing I probably couldn’t stand more than anything else is all the union workers acting like Uber drivers were horrible people for breaking an agreement they NEVER ENTERED INTO!

It also sickens me to see the unions using all this misapplied hatred to pretend that everyone who isn’t part of one of their unions is somehow powerless and should unionize immediately. Unions can serve an important and valid purpose, but they are not the only way to empower yourself as an employee. The unions of today honestly stopped serving their employees the minute they started forcing them all to join just to work, IMHO.

Anonymous Coward says:

Uber continues to trip over surge pricing because it is a horrible business model.

What they should have done is make no pickups available for that hour explaining why, and then remove surge pricing and explain it to people booking only.

Taking it to twitter for a marketing advantage makes them look vad plain and simple.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wow, Mike is right: There is a lot of stupidity and overreaction. Uber’s search model is based on demand. The more demand there is, the higher the prices go. That’s basic market forces, but we won’t go there.
In this case, regular taxis were on strike. People in the airport wouldn’t be able to get a taxi home, so they’d turn to alternative methods, such as Uber. This would have increased demand and in turn, pricing. Would it have been fair for Uber to increase pricing due to the taxi strike? Of course not.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Some people need to stop looking for a conspiracy in every action. Uber dropping their surge pricing is hardly new. They’ve done it in other emergency situations, sometimes retroactively refunding those who were affected.

But I disagree with Mike as well: I doubt that it had anything to do with supporting protesters. If anything, they were supporting those who were stuck at the airport.

k says:

Re: Re:

“Uber’s search model is based on demand. The more demand there is, the higher the prices go. That’s basic market forces, but we won’t go there.”

I can tell you’re not an economist. For a market mechanism to work like you suggest, either the buyer or seller has to set the price. Uber acts more as a broker, and one serious failing of surge pricing is that it doesn’t reflect actual fare payments ie, the market. Surge pricing often causes market failure, where Uber’s algorithm puts prices so high business stops and drivers and passengers who would both be happier with a lower fare can no longer connect.

Actually talking about the topic at hand, Uber’s Senior VP for Policy and Strategy is David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager. It’s likely that he’s responsible for making the policy call on disabling surge pricing and it’s highly unlikely that he did so to stop the demonstrations.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Actually talking about the topic at hand, Uber’s Senior VP for Policy and Strategy is David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager. It’s likely that he’s responsible for making the policy call on disabling surge pricing and it’s highly unlikely that he did so to stop the demonstrations.

Um. I’ll just say that’s not Plouffe’s job at all. He’s basically focused on lobbying. He’s not making the call on when to drop or leave surge pricing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

If you’re a UBER driver and just sitting around at home and find out you could go out and make double the normal rate, would you just do nothing or hop in your car and start getting paid double?

It’s all about supply and demand. More Demand, prices go up, more Uber drivers get on the road, more people can get picked up, it hits a peek and then starts dropping, demand drops, prices drop and those that went out on the road to make double go back home. Free market in action. It’s really no different when a new Game console goes on sale, they get sold out, put on ebay and sold for double the price or more. Then supply starts getting into stores, and no one will pay those ebay prices anymore.

Again free market in action. No one says you have to pay those ebay prices. You can wait around and get the cheaper option. Don’t like the UBER surge prices, you can wait around until it’s over, or take a Taxi or call a friend, or take public transportation. UBER is free to charge what they want and you’re free to not use them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

That’s too naive.

Surge pricing could work if there was no friction in the market. But there is tons of friction. Potential uber drivers aren’t just sitting around doing nothing because the price is too low, they are otherwise occupied. If they knew the price would be high they could arrange to be available. But in most cases they have no idea when surge pricing is going to take effect. So upping the price does not significantly increase the number of drivers on the road.

The couple of times a year that they can plan ahead, like new years eve, everybody plans ahead and the drivers are already out on the road which reduces surge pricing, in the smaller city where I live surge pricing lasted for about 15 minutes on NYE because all the drivers made plans to drive. It was a total bust for the drivers.

Esoth (profile) says:

Couldn't Disagree More

The point isn’t the likability or lack thereof of UBER, or even the finer points of UBER’s timing and intent. It the association, whether intended or not, with someone and something so loathsome to many American’s sensibilities. Trump breeds discord and confusion. What this “overreaction” did was to penetrate Trump’s toxic cloud of chaos and to pointedly convey to UBER that there will be consequences for attempts to curry favor with Trump or to exploit the lamentable conditions he is set on creating. Trump will alternatingly attack and fawn over, threaten and bribe commercial and tech companies that he thinks he can use in some fashion. It will be a dangerous proposition to play along. There will be consequences for us all, from what we have chosen to do to ourselves in elevating such a man on such ill terms as he insisted he be known by. Consequences far beyond inconvenience. You expect us all to roll over and submit?

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Couldn't Disagree More

America doesn’t really have a left. You’ve got right and further right. The nearest thing you have to a left is the people who have little power, e.g. Bernie Sanders, but even he is pretty moderate. Go and read Jacobin magazine. Or The Socialist Worker. Or the Morning Star. Then you’ll know what “the actual left” really is.

Protip: it’s not people who disagree with you.

Fun fact: I shared this with a far right Trumpeter on Twitter. I think I blew his mind; he’s stopped tagging me to try to convert me from my “leftism.” I’m conservative.

Vox Clams says:

Brilliant Move by Lyft?

I received Lyft’s email of its $4M gift to the ACLU and my reaction was to delete my Lyft app.

I do not need lectures from Lyft on the “correct” view of the world and they were better off keeping their views to themselves. I do not want to support sharia law, even indirectly, and fighting efforts to improve the immigration vetting system in my view advances the cause of sharia law.

I oppose sharia law, as well as terrorism. Whether Trump succeeds in championing the rights of women to be treated as people instead of property, for gays not to be persecuted and for “apostates” to have freedom of religion without being killed is open to question.

But when it comes to sharia law, you are either for it or against it.

Trump is against it and is taking action in that direction.

Those who oppose Trump on a knee-jerk basis are missing the boat on what the real issue is and that issue is sharia law – the motivation for the terrorism, yes, but also being advanced by peaceful means, such as mass immigration.

We take it as a given that you oppose Islamic terrorism, but do you oppose sharia law?

And if you do oppose sharia law, do agree that US immigration policy should be to not admit immigrants who support sharia law (i.e., treatment of women like property, persecution of gays and the killing of apostates)?

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