🦾 holding algorithms to account

🤖 competition + the future of work

  
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For too long, policy professionals have quarrelled over how to best measure the gig economy while failing to actually address it.  

Progress seems to be on the horizon (?). Earlier this year, then Minister of Labour Filomena Tassi hosted consultations on the new realities of working Canadians, exploring gig work and the right to disconnect. The federal Liberal platform proposed to “strengthen rights for workers employed by digital platforms so that they are entitled to job protections under the Canada Labour Code and establish new provisions in the Income Tax Act to ensure this work counts toward EI and CPP while also making these platforms pay associated contributions as any employer would.” Without confirmation in a mandate letter, it is unclear how they may move forward on these aspirations. 

In Ontario, the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, Monte McNaughton has made a series of recent encouraging announcements, such as the right to disconnect, banning non-competes, and guaranteeing washroom access for gig and delivery workers.

While it is important that the province lead on interventions like ensuring that gig and delivery workers have washroom access, that policy change only scratches at the underlying forces that push workers to urinate in bottles or defecate in their vans. There is more work to be done, much of it related to addressing the problem of near-constant surveillance that has come to characterize all kinds of work in ‘the precision economy.’ 

In California, recent legislation could serve as an initial model of a smart policy response. AB 701 requires that warehouse distribution centres disclose production quota descriptions to their workers, and prohibits the use of algorithms that disrupt basic labour rights such as rest periods, bathroom breaks, or compliance with health and safety laws. The legislation ensures workers cannot be fired or retaliated against for failing to meet an unsafe quota.

This bill is meaningful because Amazon warehouse workers are managed by algorithms that determine which items need to be moved in a specific amount of time (called the “pick rate”). Somewhat similarly, the Deliveroo platform expects drivers to accept new customer orders within an average of just 30 seconds. Given that algorithms are increasingly treating people like robots,  it is imperative that policymakers do more to protect people from inhumane expectations that are driven by data. 

We have already seen some initial policy pushback against algorithms. Midway through the pandemic, the Premier appealed to food delivery platforms to ease their 30% commission.  Researchers have shown this rate is sticky despite new entrants to the market, challenging the conventions of traditional competition. Policymakers could do more to mitigate this exploitative business model, like setting a commission cap for food-delivery apps similar to the one imposed in New York City

Earlier this year, DoorDash workers gamed the algorithm using a loophole in an old Android version of the app. They organized the #DeclineNow protest over Facebook, which asked peers to turn down the lowest-paying deliveries. With this collective action they demonstrated a new form of power - algorithmic resistance. Policymakers need to pay much more attention to these platforms and achieve better accountability from the firms that design and deploy them.  Yet despite a recent CBC Marketplace investigation demonstrating that Instacart is throttling the wages of workers, no policy actors have stepped forward to tackle monopsony in digital labour markets. 

Scholars and lawmakers are considering whether the use of data to inform algorithmic pricing regimes that have come to characterize gig platforms like Uber can constitute a collusive practice (or anti-competitive agreement). Competition experts need to consider this in Canada, too. 

The EU is considering the opportunities and challenges that self-employed people face in providing services through online platforms. The lessons they derive will similarly be applicable here. In this case, Canada doesn’t need to rush to replicate these explorations; but rather we should be prepared to consider the results in a Canadian context. 

In the US, the FTC and DOJ will be hosting a virtual public workshop exploring competition in labour markets in early December. It would be relatively straightforward for Canadian officials or academics to host a similar exploration that is open to the public, and would be an incredible area of collaboration between provincial labour authorities and the Competition Bureau. Our reluctance to collect information from workers about the dynamics of their digital work does them a disservice, and hurts their mobility and power. Workplace surveillance algorithms need to be regulated. Perhaps this will be on the minds of the federal Liberals’ yet-to-be-announced Digital Policy Task Force

It is ironic that policy progress on gig work has been impeded by numeric ambiguity and yet it is characterized by intrusive data-fication and surveillance.

There is no doubt that technology is reshaping the world of work as we know it. Our regulatory environments need to be as responsive, agile, and perceptive as the digital tools that are challenging it. Ontario is taking some important first steps that can be a model in the federation and I look forward to future progress across different orders of government. 


What’s behind the recent rise in popularity of Bitcoin? And how do Wild West frontier myths help explain the appeal of cryptocurrencies?

Come hear 𝗘𝘁𝗵𝗮𝗻 𝗟𝗼𝘂 discuss his latest book, Once A Bitcoin Miner, which takes readers on a deeply researched journey into the lives of some of the movers and shakers of this new digital currency world.

Ethan will appear in conversation with technology policy expert 𝗩𝗮𝘀𝘀 𝗕𝗲𝗱𝗻𝗮𝗿 on Wednesday, November 23rd at 7.00 pm PST.

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ICYMI, I wrote about competition (…again) in the National Post. 👇

+ “regs to riches” was mentioned in the Globe and Mail re: Dye and Durham!

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Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program and a Public Policy Forum Fellow.