Cable boxes, ridesharing and the right to be represented by a bot

Here are two tech policy issues that don’t seem related but are: the FCC’s current push to open up the set-top-box, and the lawsuits challenging Uber’s and Lyft’s classification of drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The way to see the connection is through the lens of control vs. competition.  More specifically, they are about breaking apart the service and the interface, and how that can benefit competition and innovation.

In the case of the set top box, the FCC wants to require that cable providers allow any set top box or tv to connect directly to the cable wire and decrypt the schedule and content — so that any box or TV of the user’s choosing can build an interface around the TV/video listings and video content.

Under the FCC’s plan, Comcast and other cable providers would not have the exclusive right to the interface, and would instead be required to let customers use a box or TV or their choosing.  The FCCs reasoning here is twofold: the first reason is cost — consumers spend an average of $231 per year (or $20B total, annually) renting set-top boxes from cable companies; and the second is innovation: users of Comcast’s cable service will recognize this interface, which has existed unchanged (until very recently with the introduction of the X1 box) for at least a decade:

X-25-TVL-Time3

Because Comcast and other cable/video providers control both the service and the interface, and there’s no machine-readable API for accessing info through a third-party device, they’re able to charge high fees for the boxes, and are under no pressure to innovate on the interface.

So, how does that relate at all to what’s going on with Lyft and Uber and the worker classification lawsuits?

The focus of the ridesharing labor debate has been on classification of drivers as “independent contractors” or “employees”, which, at its heart, is about control.  The more control that’s exerted, the more it looks like an employee relationship, the less that’s exerted, the more it looks like an independent contractor relationship.

What’s so confusing is that in an app-mediated world, where platforms straddle the line between being “services” and “marketplaces”, control looks different than it did in the industrial era.  Alex Rosenblat from the Data & Society Institute has taken an interesting look at this.  Her research examines the often subtle ways in which data-rich platforms exert control over their users/partners/workers.  At the heart of it is the information asymmetry that exists between platforms and workers — which platforms make use of to exert control in subtle ways that look and feel very different than in the traditional employer / employee relationship.

The parallel, then, to the set-top box debate is that separating the service from the interface may be the most elegant regulatory intervention here, as opposed to the more traditional interventions proposed by labor advocates.  My colleague Albert calls this the right to be represented by a bot.

Imagine a “driver bot” that could interface with ridesharing services on behalf of the driver, much the way that an AppleTV or Roku would interface with Cable programming under the FCC’s proposal.  Such a bot would be able to ingest information from ridesharing services, including rides available, pricing information (surges, etc), ratings and transactional data, etc., and interact with the services on behalf of the driver.

Over time, and deployed across the entire ridesharing fleet, such a bot service would be able to counterbalance the information asymmetry that Rosenblat describes, by analyzing and interpreting data collected across the entire network, and presenting it to drivers in a transparent and consistent way.

Why would rideshare platforms want to go along with such a scheme?  Because doing so would bolster their arguments that they really do have an arms-length, independent contractor relationship with their drivers — one that truly delivers freedom, flexibility and choice.  And, because the alternative — using heavy-handed, outmoded labor law to force the square peg of platform workers into the round hole of W2 employees — would be a much tougher proposition.

I suspect that over time, more and more regulators outside of the telecom space will take this kind of information-centric approach, recognizing the power dynamics embedded in data-rich systems.  It strikes me that such an approach will be necessary to move from a regulation 1.0 era to a regulation 2.0 era.

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