How can the gig economy address discrimination?

A recent study found strong evidence of discrimination among drivers for ride-sharing services like Uber. 'Blind' tech platforms and updated regulations may provide part of the solution.

Toby Melville/Reuters/File
A photo illustration shows the Uber app logo displayed on a mobile phone.

During the civil rights era, laws were written to protect Americans from discrimination – whomever and wherever they are. Now, the rise of the so-called gig economy has renewed the search for solutions to discrimination.

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study, looking at 1,500 rides on Uber and similar ride-hailing services, found that passengers with “African-American-sounding” names waited 35 percent longer for rides. In some cities, they were up to three times as likely to have their rides cancelled as white riders. That led the researchers to conclude that "at least some drivers for both UberX and Lyft discriminate on the basis of the perceived race of the traveler."

The study is part of a larger trend of perceived bias across the gig economy, where online services match up individuals who own goods and those who want to rent them. Companies have already been working to address any discrimination through "blind" tech platforms that reduce the opportunity for bias. Some say civil rights laws could also be updated for improved protection.

Discrimination in the gig economy, which is a fast-growing and still comparatively unregulated sector, has been highlighted by lawsuits and Twitter hashtags. In May, Gregory Selden sued Airbnb, a cheaper alternative to hotels, which allows users to stay in others’ homes during their travels. He claimed that a host rejected him on the grounds of his race, and the service did not do anything to address this discrimination. The hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack has become a focal point for users to share their experiences of discrimination and ways that they have handled it.

In an interview with Forbes, Airbnb executive Brian Chesky noted that the "three white guys" who founded the company had not done enough to encourage diversity. Studies and lawsuits have prompted an in-depth review of these issues across the "sharing economy."

"Discrimination has no place in society, and no place on Uber. We believe Uber is helping reduce transportation inequities across the board, but studies like this one are helpful in thinking about how we can do even more," Rachel Holt, head of North American operations at Uber, said in a written statement to the Monitor.

One challenge for these companies: the contractor status of most of their service-providers. These services may consider themselves "passive participants who offer a software platform that simply connects willing participants," Aaron Belzer and Nancy Leong point out in a Washington Post story about their forthcoming Georgetown Law Review article. 

In that case, they write, companies could claim that federal civil rights law does not apply to them. The Communications Decency Act also limits websites’ responsibility for users’ behavior, which may be applicable to these services, too. But existing laws provide a framework that should be amended, they argue, to incorporate the gig economy.

Until legislators change laws or judges create precedents, there’s still plenty that companies can do. The platform of Innclusive, a peer-to-peer accommodation site developed as a more inclusive alternative to Airbnb, is specifically designed to "remove the possibility of bias," founder Rohan Wilkes tells The Christian Science Monitor. Until hosts agree to a booking, they cannot see a profile picture or personal information – instead, they see "markers of trust." And it helps that the platform has a brand that focuses on inclusivity.

"Folks that choose to list on Innclusive can see in our branding and messaging that we are actively working towards building a more inclusive clientele,” Mr. Wilkes explains.

Uber and Lyft already delay showing a rider’s photo until the driver has accepted the trip. Uber’s deactivation policy allows the company to ban drivers who cancel too many rides, which may help to reduce the chance that drivers will cancel once they know a rider’s identity. But Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, says more could be done.

"What if you make the driver drive until they’re half a mile away [before showing them a photo of the user]?" he asks in a phone interview with the Monitor, noting that drivers would be incentivized not to cancel because it means not getting paid for time they have invested.

Reputation is also key to these services. As Rachel Botsman observed in the Harvard Business Review last year, the gig economy has changed the rules of trust.

"I behave differently [at an Airbnb] because of the reputation system in place that means not only do I rate hosts, but they rate me. Trust lies intimately between the perceptions of the two users."

The trouble is, because ratings are given after the service is received, the rating can be influenced by anything, including race or gender. Professor Edelman suggests replacing the five-star rating system with a choice between "This ride was perfect" and "There was a problem with this ride." Users reporting a problem would be required to give specific details about the issue.

"I suspect there would be less discrimination if you actually focused on the hard facts," he says, adding that he has "great confidence in Uber’s ability to organize this information effectively" for future riders.

And while progress continues, many black Americans say Uber is already a step forward compared to the struggles they face when hailing a taxi.

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