Last night, news broke that Uber will share some of its coveted data about traffic patterns and routes with city officials. While the olive branch could be a boon for city planners, it’s not exactly what they were asking asking for—and it reminds us how Silicon Valley companies use their vast troves of data to maintain the upper hand with the cities that regulate them.
Case in point: New York City has been asking Uber for driver pickup and drop-off data in order to check how many hours drivers are working. Uber already shares pickup data, but it says adding drop-off data puts the privacy of its customers at risk. Now suddenly it launches this new initiative, called Uber Movement, which may distract regulators from pressing for the data they want and could serve as leverage in future entanglements with city officials.
It’s right out of the gig-economy playbook. Airbnb pulled a similar move two years ago, offering regulators data to show that the vast majority of its users were regular people, not building owners operating illegal hotels. Then in November, it called for a mandatory new registration process in San Francisco so it could better track and share data about properties with that city. In both instances, Airbnb and Uber are using data to maintain control of their relationship with local governments.
No regulator has yet been able to tame either Airbnb or Uber, though not for lack of trying. Both companies continue to operate in markets where they’re not welcome or where the legality of their business is murky. While they have tons of resources for fighting financially cumbersome legal battles, data appears a means to quell anxious officials.