QOTD: Fifty Shades of Greyball?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Don’t look now, but the ride-sharing company everybody loves to hate is in trouble yet again. The Justice Department is reportedly opening an investigation into Uber’s not-so-secret “Greyball” tools, which can be used to circumvent law enforcement attempts to interfere with Uber’s business operations.

According to sources inside Uber, “Greyball” was originally developed to help protect Uber drivers from potential threats to their safety, such as unionized taxi drivers and other people who expressed their displeasure with Uber’s service in violent terms. The company soon realized Greyball could also be enhanced to help prevent “sting” operations in areas where ride-sharing services are illegal and/or heavily regulated.

I have no idea whether or not Uber will survive this unwanted federal attention; I’m reminded of the phrase used in the book Dune regarding “fools who put themselves in the way of the Harkonnen fist.” More interesting to me than that is the comment in the NYT article that some Uber employees had concerns about whether “Greyball” was “ethical.” That, I think, is the fascinating question.

Long-time readers know that I am at the very least ambivalent regarding the “gig economy” and Uber’s exploitation of its drivers. Regarding Greyball, however, I have far more moral clarity.

There is nothing unethical about Uber’s decision to deny service to government officials, would-be “sting” operators, or anyone else for that matter. The whole idea behind Uber is that it is a private enterprise, not a government-sanctioned monopoly like the NYC “taxi medallion” scam/scheme. If you are a taxi operator in New York, you give up control over all sorts of things — the vehicle you use, the drivers you hire, the fare you charge, even the routes that drivers are permitted to take. In exchange for that, you’re given a share in a monopoly so exclusive that medallion holders complain when they sell for a quarter-million dollars. Obviously, the fellow who just paid $241,000 for a taxi medallion isn’t going to drive the cab himself. So where’s the morality in all that?

Most of the municipalities where Uber operates in an undocumented, dreamer-like fashion prohibit ride-sharing because they want to protect those monopolies. Sometimes it’s out of concern for passenger access or safety, but more often it’s just money talking. I don’t think Uber has any ethical obligation to let those people run sting operations against them. If they want to deny rides to government mandarins or their enforcement thugs, then I don’t personally have an ethical issue with that.

The Founding Fathers felt the same way. American citizens have the right to avoid incriminating themselves, and they have the right to avoid entrapment. Greyball simply aids Uber drivers in availing themselves of those protections. There’s nothing unethical or immoral about that. We are not yet at the stage where obedience to city officials has a moral or ethical dimension. Not yet.

Now for your take. Do you think Uber is in the right?

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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5 of 66 comments
  • Dal20402 Dal20402 on May 05, 2017

    I can't comment on Uber for professional reasons. I can say two things: 1) as a general matter, it's almost always illegal to attempt to circumvent proper law enforcement procedures, and 2) Jack is not well versed in rules applicable to common carriers, and is painting a very misleading picture of the law as a result.

    • See 2 previous
    • Dal20402 Dal20402 on May 05, 2017

      @bikegoesbaa I should have added the word "business" somehwere. If you are a business subject to regular inspections and field checks, you will get in trouble if you systematically try to avoid them.

  • Jeff Zekas Jeff Zekas on May 07, 2017

    Uber and Taxi companies are both garbage. Talked with a former taxi driver: "Its a scam. You can't make any money, driving taxi." And what did he think of Uber? "Just as bad. Ten bucks and hour, and you wear out your own car! And pay your own gas and insurance!"

  • Lou_BC In my town the dealers are bad for marking up products, even pickups. There were multiple "mega-projects" on the go in my region so money was flowing fast and loose both by corporations and employees. All of that is coming to an end plus we've seen a pulpmill close, one pulpmill line close and a few sawmill closures. Cash is getting tight.
  • Lou_BC Branding is very powerful and effective. I always get a kick out of hardcore Harley Davidson fans. The "Jap scrap" mentality exists even in Canada. I used to get derided for riding Japanese bikes. I confused a bunch of Harley guys once when I pointed out that in Canada, Harley is just as much as a foreign import as Yamaha. They tried to argue that a Harley made in USA was not a foreign made bike. The cognitive dissonance made me laugh.
  • Ajla It's weird how surveys come to conclusions like this when about 100% of the responses then mock the results as ridiculous.
  • Jkross22 It very much depends on the dealer. Just bought a replacement for the CX9. A local dealer gave a $500 discount on a CPO car while another one gave a few thousand dollar discount but was out of the area and we had to drive 5 hours to get. The local dealer still seems to think it's 2022 and cars appreciate when sitting on the lot. I wish them luck.
  • Ajla "and the $34K price doesn't seem too steep." Respectfully disagree. This would be okay at $29K. $34k clangs into way too much.