Column: How millions from Uber and Lyft are funding the harassment of a critic
Veena Dubal has spent much of her professional career examining and writing about the rise of the gig economy and the loss of employment rights by workers in that sector.
An associate professor at UC Hastings law school, Dubal has been an outspoken supporter of AB5, the California law designed to rein in those employment abuses, including those by the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft.
She’s also a critic of Proposition 22, the initiative funded chiefly by Uber and Lyft aimed at overturning AB5.
Sometimes it’s really overwhelming.
— UC Hastings law professor Veena Dubal
As a result of her criticism of Uber, Lyft and the gig economy business model, Dubal has become the target of harassment on Twitter, some of it obscene and some of it overtly encouraged by the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign, which is heavily funded by Uber and Lyft.
Her home address has been published online, which prompted her local police department to start regular patrols around her home. She has been falsely accused of having written AB5 and having had a “hand” in the 2018 California Supreme Court decision that led to AB5.
A Sacramento opposition research consultant working for Yes on 22 recently filed a public records act request with UC Hastings seeking nine months of emails, text messages or “other writings” related to AB5, Proposition 22 and the gig economy between Dubal and roughly 160 organizations and individuals.
The request resembles a technique of intimidation often employed by fossil fuel, tobacco, anti-labor and other interests against researchers, scientists, activists and other critics.
Get ready for a torrent of special-interest spending on California ballot measures.
One ride-hail driver filed a complaint against Dubal with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging that she violated lobbying laws. The FPPC rejected the allegation and closed the case.
Dubal tries to laugh off all this activity. “I hope they have a wonderful time wading through my thousands of emails and text messages,” she told me.
But it’s also plain that it has taken an emotional toll. The posting of her home address left her “really freaked out,” she says, since it happened in the teeth of the pandemic lockdown and she has three children at home. “I kept the doors locked and the kids’ windows closed and I slept in their rooms.”
She has changed all her online passwords, hired a security consultant to scrub her personal information from the internet, even removed wedding photos that had been turned into offensive memes online. Although the initial tweet disclosing her home address has been taken offline, she’s aware that her address is still circulating on the internet.
“Sometimes it’s really overwhelming,” she says.
Some of the attacks on Dubal have come from, let us say, right field. These include a series of articles appearing on the right-wing website Communities Digital News.
They label Dubal, without evidence, the “true author” of AB5 (Dubal says that’s untrue), call her the law’s “puppet master,” and say she had a “hand” in the 2018 state Supreme Court decision.
That implies that Dubal helped to write the decision, but that’s also untrue: The 7-0 decision, which appeared over the name of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, mentions Dubal once, citing an article by her in a single footnote.
Uber and Lyft are being squeezed by enforcement of California’s gig worker law.
I asked the articles’ author, Jennifer Oliver O’Connell, what these assertions are based on. She told me by email that she had “documented” the claims, but didn’t reply when I asked her to provide specific documentation.
It should go without saying that this sort of treatment is detestable. Even though not all the harassment of Dubal can be traced to the Yes on 22 committee, if you’re inclined to give the Uber/Lyft initiative the benefit of the doubt in November’s election, you should consider those companies’ role in the attacks on Dubal.
The Yes on 22 ballot committee has collected more than $110 million in contributions, of which more than $70 million has come from the two ride-hailing firms. (That includes $10 million contributed by Postmates, a gig company that Uber acquired in July.)
We asked Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, a gig company that has contributed $10 million to the Proposition 22 campaign, for their comments.
All three referred me to the Yes on 22 campaign, but that won’t do. The question isn’t what the initiative campaign thinks about the harassment, but what Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, in whose name the campaign operates and whose money is its lifeblood, think about it. On that, they’re silent.
Let’s take a closer look at this noxious situation.
AB5, which went into effect in January, codified a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling that workers for many gig companies who had been classified as “independent contractors” — such as drivers for Uber and Lyft — were effectively employees and therefore entitled to benefits such as work expenses, workers compensation and unemployment insurance and the right to unionize.
AB5 included exemptions for numerous work categories, but not ride-hailing drivers. (The law provided a temporary exemption for newspaper distributors and carriers, which was lobbied for by The Times and other newspapers. In the session just ended, the state legislature approved extending the exemption through 2021; the act awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.)
Uber and Lyft, which haven’t acknowledged that they’re subject to AB5, responded to its enactment by concocting Proposition 22. The initiative would exempt them from AB5 and substitute an alternative employment scheme. As we’ve reported, this scheme would still leave the drivers and other gig workers vulnerable to being ripped off by the businesses they work for.
We’re familiar with the Uber that talked about responding to bad publicity by digging up dirt on reporters following the company.
That brings us back to the campaign against Dubal. Uber’s record points to its interest in intimidating critics. In 2016, for example, U.S. Judge Jed S. Rakoff of New York determined that in the course of a lawsuit filed against Uber’s co-founder and then-CEO Travis Kalanick, the company had launched a secret, fraudulent investigation of the plaintiff and his lawyer, and misled the targets about it.
In 2014, then-executive Emil Michael expressed interest in looking into the “personal lives” and “families” of journalists critical of the company. Uber subsequently said it had never taken any steps Michael mentioned. In 2017, Uber critic Susan Fowler Righetti discovered that someone had been contacting her friends to glean personal information about her; she didn’t name Uber, and the company denied it was responsible.
Uber is now under new management, with Kalanick and Michael both gone. But it’s conceivable that the DNA they left at the company remains in place under new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.
What has Yes on 22 done? After her home address was posted online, Dubal — at the suggestion of her digital security consultant — started blocking Twitter accounts that had targeted her, sometimes with vile and obscene language and imagery. Yes on 22 then issued a tweet urging anyone she blocked to post a screenshot of the blocking notice.
Almost anyone familiar with Twitter knows that publicizing blockings is like waving a lunch bucket in front of Twitter trolls — it often feeds more trolling. In its tweet, Yes on 22 accused Dubal of silencing “those who try to engage her.”
Yes on 22 spokesman Geoff Vetter told me that the post was designed to ensure that “drivers who do not want to be employees and remain independent ... are not erased or silenced.”
This is absurd: Dubal hasn’t “erased or silenced” anyone. Blocking just means the blocked user can’t access her tweets or respond directly to her; no one has been prevented from saying anything they wish on Twitter or anywhere else.
Vetter also said on behalf of the initiative campaign, “we strongly condemn any form of harassment and ask that it stop immediately.”
But he acknowledges that the campaign hasn’t issued a condemnation generally, only to news organizations that have raised questions about the harassment of Dubal. To date, that’s Slate.com, CNet.com, and us. Only readers of those articles will be aware of the campaign’s oh-so-valiant stand against harassment. The campaign has never taken down its original tweet, by the way.
Vetter says the company “frequently” instructs drivers who support Proposition 22 to “be respectful of everyone they interact with.”
Vetter says the public records act request, which was directed to UC Hastings, a public entity, is designed to ensure that Dubal and her correspondents “weren’t using taxpayer resources to coordinate or campaign against Prop 22.”
Uh-huh. Public records act requests are effective tools for journalists and consumer advocates — we’ve used them to obtain records that public officials would rather keep under wraps. But voluminous requests like this have been used by entrenched interests to discourage public discourse by saddling their critics with time-consuming busywork.
Maria Shanle of UC’s general counsel’s office says that public records requests have mushroomed over the years to some 20,000 annually, systemwide. (Hastings manages its requests separately.)
As for requests related to faculty, “Activists across the country have seen significant impacts using public records requests as an effective strategy to undermine the work of researchers in controversial fields,” Shanle says. “In my view, this is part of a larger political trend toward discrediting the cultural authority of scientific experts, and undermining science in general.”
When it comes to exploiting its front-line workers, the grocery delivery service Instacart may be in a class by itself.
The consultant who issued the request for Dubal’s material, Mark Bogetich of MB Public Affairs — whose firm has been paid $240,000 thus far this year by Yes on 22 — staged a similar onslaught of public records demands related to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), a progressive public policy group, in 2011.
Among his previous clients are Altria, the owner of the tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris; and Republican politicians including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
We’ve reported before how the California ballot initiative process has been manipulated by moneyed businesses and individuals for purposes that undermine the public interest.
It’s bad enough that Uber, Lyft and their fellow gig companies are spending nine-figure sums to promote an initiative that benefits themselves at the expense of their workers.
It’s especially contemptible that they’re using some of that money to target a critic simply because she speaks out against them, and hiding behind their initiative committee to do so.
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