Facebook rolls out checks for UK political ads

Facebook has announced it rolled out a system of checks on political ads run on its platform in the UK which requires advertisers to verify their identity and location to try to make it harder for foreign actors to meddle in domestic elections and referenda. This follows similar rollouts of political ad transparency tools in […]

Facebook has announced it rolled out a system of checks on political ads run on its platform in the UK which requires advertisers to verify their identity and location to try to make it harder for foreign actors to meddle in domestic elections and referenda.

This follows similar rollouts of political ad transparency tools in the U.S. and Brazil.

From today, Facebook said it will record and display information about who paid for political ads to run on its platform in the UK within an Ad library — including retaining the ad itself — for “up to seven years”.

It will also badge these ads with a “Paid for by” disclaimer.

So had the company had this system up and running during the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, the Canadian data firm AIQ would, presumably, have had to pass its political advertiser verification process, and display “Paid for by” Vote Leave/BeLeave/Veterans for Britain badges on scores of pro-Brexit ads… If it didn’t just get barred for not being based in the UK in the first place.

(How extensively Facebook will be checking up on political advertisers’ ‘paid for by’ claims is one pertinent question to ask, and we have asked; otherwise this looks mostly like a badging exercise — which requires other doing the work to check/police claims… ).

Ditto during Ireland’s referendum earlier this year, on overturning a constitutional ban on abortion. In that instance Facebook decided to suspend all foreign-funded ads a few weeks before the vote because it did not yet have a political ad check system in place.

In the UK, the new requirement on political advertisers applies to “all advertisers wanting to run ads in the UK that reference political figures, political parties, elections, legislation before Parliament and past referenda that are the subject of national debate”, Facebook said.

“We see this as an important part of ensuring electoral integrity and helping people understand who they are engaging with,” said Richard Allan, VP of global public policy, and Rob Leathern, director of product management in a blog post announcing the launch. “We recognise that this is going to be a significant change for people who use our service to publish this type of ad. While the vast majority of ads on Facebook are run by legitimate organisations, we know that there are bad actors that try to misuse our platform. By having people verify who they are, we believe it will help prevent abuse.”

UK lawmakers have been highly critical of Facebook’s response to their attempts to investigate how social media ads were used and mis-used during the UK’s 2016 EU referendum.

This summer the parliamentary committee that has been investigating online disinformation called for a levy on social media to ‘defend democracy’. And earlier this year Facebook told the same committee it would roll out an authentication process for political advertisers in time for the UK’s local elections, in May 2019 — with CTO Mike Schroepfer telling MPs the company believes “radical transparency” can fix concern about the societal and democratic impacts of divisive social media ads.

In response, MPs quizzed Schroepfer on whether Facebook’s political ad transparency tool would be so radical as to include “targeting data” in the disclosures — i.e. “will I understand not just who the advertiser was and what other adverts they’d run but why they’d chose to advertise to me”.

The Facebook CTO’s response in April suggested the company did not plan to go that far. And, indeed, Facebook says now that the details it will disclose in the Ad library are only: “A range of the ad’s budget and number of people reached, and the other ads that Page is running.”

So not, seemingly, any actual targeting data: Aka the specific reasons a particular user is seeing a particular political ad. Which could help Facebook users contextualize political ads and be wiser to attempts to manipulate their opinion, as well as generally better understand how their personal information is being used (and potentially misused).

It’s true that Facebook does already provide some data about broad-brush targeting, with a per-ad option users can click to get a response on ‘why am I seeing this?’. But the targeting categories the company serves via this feature are so broad and lacking in comprehensiveness as to be selectively uninformative and thus pretty useless at very best.

Indeed, the results have even been accused of being misleading.

If Facebook was required by law to rip away its adtech modesty curtain entirely there’s a risk, for its business model, that users would get horribly creeped out by the full bore view of the lidless eye in the digital wall spying on them to target ads.

So while Schroepfer teased UK MPs with “radical transparency” the reality, six months on, is something a whole lot more dilute and incremental.

Facebook itself appears to be conceding as much, and trying to manage expectations, when it writes: “We believe that increased transparency will lead to increased accountability and responsibility over time — not just for Facebook but for advertisers as well.”

So it remains to be seen whether UK lawmakers will be satisfied with this tidbit. Or call for blood, as they set themselves to the task of regulating social media.

The other issue is how comprehensively (or otherwise) Facebook will police its own political ad checks.

Its operational historical is replete with content identification and moderation failures. Which doesn’t exactly bode well for the company to robustly control malicious attempts to skew public opinion — especially when the advertisers in question are simultaneously trying to pour money into its coffers.

So it also remains to be seen how many divisive political ads will simply slip under its radar — i.e. via the non-political, non-verified standard route, and get distributed anyway. Not least because there is also the trickiness of identifying a political ad (vs a non-political ad).

Malicious political ads paid for by Kremlin-backed entities didn’t always look like malicious political ads. Some of the propaganda Russia was spreading via Facebook in the US targeted at voters included seemingly entirely apolitical and benign messages aimed at boosting support among certain identity-based groups, for example. And those sorts of ads would not appear to fit Facebook’s definition of a ‘political ad’ here.

In general, the company also looks to be relying on everyone else to do the grunt-work policing for it — as per its usual playbook.

“If you see an ad which you believe has political content and isn’t labeled, please report it by tapping the three dots at the top right-hand corner of the ad,” it writes. “We will review the ad, and if it falls under our political advertising policy, we’ll take it down and add it to the Ad Library. The advertiser will then be prevented from running ads related to politics until they complete our authorisation process and we’ll follow up to let you know what happened to the ad you reported.”

With $50M in fresh funding, Allbirds will open new stores in the US, UK and Asia

Allbirds’ wool runners have been a VC favorite since the beginning. Now, the company is worth $1.4 billion.

The quintessential venture capitalist’s uniform consists of a pair of designer jeans, a Patagonia fleece vest and $95 wool sneakers.

The company behind the shoes, Allbirds, entered the unicorn club this morning with the announcement of a $50 million Series C from late-stage players T. Rowe Price, which led the round, Tiger Global and Fidelity Investments. The 3-year-old startup founded by Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown has raised $75 million to date, including a $17.5 million Series B last year. Its backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Scooter Braun, Maveron, Lerer Hippeau and Elephant, the venture capital firm led by Warby Parker founder Andrew Hunt.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting the round values Allbirds at $1.4 billion. The company would not confirm that figure to TechCrunch.

Like Warby Parker, San Francisco-based Allbirds began as a direct-to-consumer online retailer but has since expanded to brick-and-mortar, opening stores in San Francisco and New York. It currently ships to locations across the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Next week, the company plans to open its first storefront in the U.K. in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. It will begin shipping throughout the U.K. In 2019.

Using its latest investment, Allbirds will double down on its brick-and-mortar business. In addition to the U.K., the company says it will open even more locations in the U.S., as well as open doors in Asia in the coming months. Tiger Global, which has backed Allbirds since its Series B, may be of help. The firm has offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as partners across Asia.

Allbirds makes eco-friendly wool shoes for men, women and kids via its kid’s line, aptly named Smallbirds. The shoes are made out of sustainable materials, including merino wool, a fabric made from eucalyptus fiber that the company has dubbed “Tree” and “SweetFoam,” a shoe sole made from sugarcane-based, carbon-negative foam rubber.

“Climate change is the problem of our generation and the private sector has a responsibility to combat it,” Zwillinger, Allbirds’ chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This injection of capital will help us bring our sustainable products to more people around the globe, demonstrating that comfort, design and sustainability don’t have to live exclusive of each other.”

It’s been quite the year for venture investment in … shoes. Rothy’s, which makes sustainable ballet flats for women, has raised $7 million and launched a sneaker. Atoms, a maker of minimalist shoes, brought in $560,000 in seed funding from LinkedIn’s ex-head of growth Aatif Awan and Shrug Capital. And GOAT, the operator of an online sneaker marketplace, nabbed a $60 million Series C in February.

UK High Court blocks compensation suit against Google’s ‘Safari workaround’

An attempt to bring a class-action style litigation in the UK to claim up to £3BN in compensation from Google for ignoring iPhone user privacy settings has been blocked after the High Court judge ruled the case cannot proceed. The case pertains to actions by Google between 2011 and 2012 when it allegedly harvested personal […]

An attempt to bring a class-action style litigation in the UK to claim up to £3BN in compensation from Google for ignoring iPhone user privacy settings has been blocked after the High Court judge ruled the case cannot proceed.

The case pertains to actions by Google between 2011 and 2012 when it allegedly harvested personal data from Safari users without their permission, via the use of tracking cookies.

In the US, Google settled with the FTC over the same cookie tracking issuing — agreeing in 2012 to pay $22.5M to settle the charge that it bypassed Safari’s privacy settings to serve targeted ads to consumers.

In the UK a civil legal action was filed last year by one named iPhone user, Richard Lloyd — the former director of consumer group, Which? — who was seeking to represent millions of UK users, whose Safari settings the complaint alleged were similarly ignored by Google’s tracking technologies, via a representative legal action.

Lawyers for the claimants argued that sensitive personal data such as iPhone users’ political affiliation, sexual orientation, financial situation and more had been gathered by Google via a ‘Safari Workaround’ that operated between August 2011 and February 2012, and used for targeted advertising without their consent.

The suit sought compensation for Google’s improper use of people’s data — with a proposed amount of £750 per claimant, which could have resulted in a bill of up to £3BN for the company (based on representing ~4.4 million UK iPhone users).

While the judge did not disagree “it is arguable that Google’s alleged role in the collection, collation, and use of data obtained via the Safari Workaround was wrongful, and a breach of duty”, the ruling was based on legal questions related to the merit of the case’s compensation claims, and whether the court should allow a representative action in this case.

In a judgement issued today Mr Justice Warby ruled that the claimants had not been able to demonstrate a basis for bringing a compensation claim.

UK law in this area requires claimants to be able to demonstrate they suffered damage as a result of violation of the relevant data protection rules. And in this instance the claimants had not been able to show damage, the judge ruled.

“I do not believe that the authorities show that a person whose information has been acquired or used without consent invariably suffers compensatable harm, either by virtue of the wrong itself, or the interference with autonomy that it involves. Not everything that happens to a person without their prior consent causes significant or any distress. Not all such events are even objectionable, or unwelcome. Some people enjoy a surprise party,” wrote Warby in the judgement, going on to state that “the question of whether or not damage has been sustained by an individual as a result of the non-consensual use of personal data about them must depend on the facts of the case”.

“The bare facts pleaded in this case, which are in no way individualised, do not in my judgment assert any case of harm to the value of any claimant’s right of autonomy that amounts to “damage” within the meaning of DPA s 13,” he concluded.

On a second legal point, the judge also ruled that the case would not have been allowed to proceed as a class-action style suit, asserting that “the essential requirements for a representative action are absent” — owing to individuals in the group not all having the “same interest” in the claim, and the difficulty of reliably defining a class for the purposes of this case.

In a statement after the ruling was announced, Google said: “The privacy and security of our users is extremely important to us. This claim is without merit, and we’re pleased the Court has dismissed it.”

Justice Department files criminal charges against seven Russian spies for Fancy Bear cyberattacks

U.S. prosecutors have charged seven suspects accused of working for the Russian GRU, the country’s military intelligence unit. The Justice Department’s National Security Division alleged the seven hackers were part of “a conspiracy to use computer hacking to obtain non-public, health information about athletes and others in the files of anti-doping agencies in multiple countries, […]

U.S. prosecutors have charged seven suspects accused of working for the Russian GRU, the country’s military intelligence unit.

The Justice Department’s National Security Division alleged the seven hackers were part of “a conspiracy to use computer hacking to obtain non-public, health information about athletes and others in the files of anti-doping agencies in multiple countries, and release of stolen information selectively and sometimes misleadingly.”

Prosecutors accused the seven Russian residents — charged with several counts of computer fraud and abuse and money laundering — of hacking into the World Anti-Doping Agency and several media outlets, among others. The U.S. also accuses the hackers of carrying out a massive disinformation campaign in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election — including stealing documents believed to be the Democratic National Committee.

The suspects named as GRU officers are Aleksei Sergeyevich Morenets, 41, Evgenii Mikhaylovich, Serebriakov, 37, Ivan Sergeyevich Yermakov, 32, Artem Andreyevich Malyshev, 30, and Dmitriy Sergeyevich Badin, 27, who were each assigned to Military Unit 26165, and Oleg Mikhaylovich Sotnikov, 46, and Alexey Valerevich Minin, 46.

The indictment accused the hackers of “often using fictitious personas and proxy servers,” and said they “researched victims, sent spearphishing emails, and compiled, used, and monitored malware command and control servers.”

“As part of its influence and disinformation efforts, the Fancy Bears’ Hack Team engaged in a concerted effort to draw media attention to the leaks through a proactive outreach campaign,” prosecutors said. (Fancy Bear is also widely known as APT28.) “The conspirators exchanged e-mails and private messages with approximately 186 reporters in an apparent attempt to amplify the exposure and effect of their message.”

The government said that the hacking efforts were part of a Russian government campaign set on “muddying or altering perceptions of the truth.”

“The actions of these seven hackers, all working as officials for the Russian government, were criminal, retaliatory, and damaging to innocent victims and the United States’ economy, as well as to world organizations,” said FBI director Christopher Wray. Their actions extended beyond borders, but so did the FBI’s investigation.

Three of the named Russians were also charged earlier this year as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Although it’s not the first time that Russia has been linked or suspected of carrying out cyberattacks and spreading disinformation, the U.S. and U.K. have not until today officially accused the Kremlin of its role in these attacks.

The charges were filed hours after the U.K. and Dutch authorities found evidence that Russia had targeted the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague in April. The OPCW was investigating the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who is living in the U.K. in exile.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government was weighing up further sanctions against Russia, which it blamed for the attack.

UK says Russia’s GRU was behind a spate of chaotic cyber attacks between 2015 and 2017

The UK has directly accused Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, of being behind a number of cyber attacks that took place between 2015 and 2017, calling them “indiscriminate and reckless” with a range of target types including political institutions, businesses, media and even sport. It says the chaotic campaign of attacks by the GRU […]

The UK has directly accused Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, of being behind a number of cyber attacks that took place between 2015 and 2017, calling them “indiscriminate and reckless” with a range of target types including political institutions, businesses, media and even sport.

It says the chaotic campaign of attacks by the GRU shows it is “working in secret to undermine international law and international institutions”.

The government has also identified 12 hacker group it believes the GRU to be associated with — including ‘Fancy Bear’, a group behind a string of cyber espionage attacks including the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee, which the government is also now directly linking to Russia’s military spy agency.

Of course it’s not the first time the Kremlin has been linked to politically motivated attacks (some of which haven’t even required actual hacking).

Nor is it the first time the GRU has been specifically linked to Fancy Bear. Cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike made the same link back in 2016 — with “high level confidence“.

But it’s a first for the UK government to make a link and public accusation of Russia for the attacks — likely intended to keep up geopolitical pressure on president Putin in the wake of the Sailsbury poisonings which it has also previously linked to two GRU agents. (The Kremlin later claimed the two were just tourists who happened to have been visiting the town on the same day as a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent.)

The UK’s National Cyber Security Center, which is a public-facing branch of the UK’s GCHQ spy agency, has published the latest cyber attack claims — writing that it has “identified that a number of cyber actors widely known to have been conducting cyber attacks around the world are, in fact, the GRU”.

“These attacks have been conducted in flagrant violation of international law, have affected citizens in a large number of countries, including Russia, and have cost national economies millions of pounds,” it adds.

The full list of hacker groups being linked to the Kremlin and “almost certainly” to the GRU — with what the NCSC calls “high confidence” — are:

  • APT 28
  • Fancy Bear
  • Sofacy
  • Pawnstorm
  • Sednit
  • CyberCaliphate
  • Cyber Berkut
  • Voodoo Bear
  • BlackEnergy Actors
  • STRONTIUM
  • Tsar Team
  • Sandworm

The other cyber attacks the government has now also publicly attributed to the GRU include:

  • an October 2017 ransomware attack by BadRabbit, which encrypted hard drives and rendered IT inoperable — resulting in disruption including to the Kyiv metro, Odessa airport, Russia’s central bank and two Russian media outlets
  • an August 2017 attack on the World Anti-Doping Agency in which confidential medical files relating to a number of international athletes were released
  • a phishing-based attack on an unnamed small UK-based TV station, which took place between July and August 2015, in which multiple email accounts were accessed and content stolen

The government also lists two attacks it says it had previously attributed to the GRU:

  • a June 2017 cyber attack that targeted the Ukrainian financial, energy and government sectors but which also spread to impact other European and Russian businesses
  • an October 2017 attack involving the VPNFILTER malware which infected thousands of home and small business routers and network devices worldwide. The NCSC notes that the infection “potentially allowed attackers to control infected devices, render them inoperable and intercept or block network traffic”

Commenting in a statement, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said:

These cyber attacks serve no legitimate national security interest, instead impacting the ability of people around the world to go about their daily lives free from interference, and even their ability to enjoy sport.

The GRU’s actions are reckless and indiscriminate: they try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries; they are even prepared to damage Russian companies and Russian citizens.  This pattern of behaviour demonstrates their desire to operate without regard to international law or established norms and to do so with a feeling of impunity and without consequences.

Our message is clear: together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability.

At the time of writing the Russian Embassy’s UK Twitter account had not yet issued any trolling responses to the UK government.

Well, unless this is it…

Zuckerberg must face public scrutiny over latest data breach, say UK MPs

UK members of parliament have once again called for Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to travel to the country to face questions about how his business operates. They’re renewing calls for facetime with the Facebook CEO in light of the massive data breach it disclosed on Friday — which the company said could affect as many as […]

UK members of parliament have once again called for Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to travel to the country to face questions about how his business operates.

They’re renewing calls for facetime with the Facebook CEO in light of the massive data breach it disclosed on Friday — which the company said could affect as many as 90 million users, with 50M confirmed to have been compromised. It’s not clear exactly how many UK (or European) accounts are involved at this stage.

Facebook said on Friday that it had fixed the flaws, which were introduced after an update in July, and had been exploited by hackers to swipe access tokens. Attackers had been able to use its APIs to scrape some user data, it also said. It reset all potentially affected tokens once it discovered the hack late last month.

Damian Collins, who chairs a UK parliamentary select committee which, earlier this year, spent several months this year interrogating data protection issues, and recently called for a levy on social media platforms to help defend democratic institutions from online disinformation, told the Telegraph: “Facebook’s latest data breach demonstrates more clearly than ever why Mark Zuckerberg should face public scrutiny about the practices and policies his company employs to keep British users’ data safe.”

Julian Knight, another member of the committee, also said: “It would be helpful to hear from Mr Zuckerberg, but I won’t be holding my breath.”

Earlier this year MPs on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee appealed for Zuckerberg to personally give evidence as they scrutinized the impact of online disinformation on democractic processes. However Facebook repeatedly declined to send its founder — instead sending some alternative staffers, including — finally — its CTO.

The committee was not satisfied, complaining that the reps it sent were unable to answer their questions. Collins also slammed the company for what he described as an evasive “pattern of behaviour” — and “a desire to hold onto information and not disclose it”.

It also kept up its pressure for Zuckerberg to testify — offering the chance for him to answer questions remotely, via video link. Still Facebook declined.

In May, in a pretty extraordinary development, the DCMS committee then told Facebook that if its founder stepped foot on UK soil they would issue him with a formal summons.

Safe to say, Zuckerberg made no trips to the UK, although he did attend a meeting of the EU parliament’s conference of presidents towards the end of May (where he was heckled for also avoiding MEPs’ questions).

Given his record of rejecting invitations from the UK parliament, it seems unlikely the company will suddenly offer its CEO up now — to discuss an awkward security breach to boot.

Though Facebook’s lack of engagement with UK politicians might make the government keener to seize on the committee’s recommendation of a social media levy to offset damage caused by tech platforms’ accelerating online disinformation.

We’ve reached out to Facebook with questions and will up date this story with any response.

The data breach is the first that falls clearly under new EU-wide privacy rules which carry beefed up penalties for violations.

On Friday, in a statement commenting on the Facebook hack, the UK’s data protection agency said: “It’s always the company’s responsibility to identify when UK citizens have been affected as part of a data breach and take steps to reduce any harm to consumers. We will be making enquiries with Facebook and our overseas counterparts to establish the scale of the breach and if any UK citizens have been affected.”

The company does appear to have abided by the requirements of GDPR to report major breaches within 72 hours of discovery.

Alexa is reported down across Europe

Reports are coming in that Amazon’s Alexa service is down in parts of UK, Spain, Germany and Austria. According to Down Detector and Twitter, the problem started surfacing around 8am local time and still continues. Interestingly, some users are reporting the issue is isolated to Echo Dot 2 models and while other Echo devices are […]

Reports are coming in that Amazon’s Alexa service is down in parts of UK, Spain, Germany and Austria. According to Down Detector and Twitter, the problem started surfacing around 8am local time and still continues. Interestingly, some users are reporting the issue is isolated to Echo Dot 2 models and while other Echo devices are still working. Sometimes. Other reports say everything is down. When users try to talk to their Echo devices, Alexa will report an error with connectivity and spin a red ring around the top.

Because of this outage, users will have to use wall switches to turn on lights, press buttons to make coffee and look outside to assess the weather.

As Engadget points out in their coverage, the outage could stem from Amazon Web Service issues at the company’s Ireland facility. Amazon is now reporting that those issues have been resolved so there’s a chance Alexa will be coming back online shortly.

License caps and CCTV among ride-hailing rule changes urged in report to UK gov’t

Uber and similar services could be facing caps on the number of licenses for vehicles that can operate ride-hailing services in London and other UK cities under rule changes being recommended to the government. CCTV being universally installed inside licensed taxis and private hire vehicles for safety purposes is another suggestion. A working group in […]

Uber and similar services could be facing caps on the number of licenses for vehicles that can operate ride-hailing services in London and other UK cities under rule changes being recommended to the government.

CCTV being universally installed inside licensed taxis and private hire vehicles for safety purposes is another suggestion.

A working group in the UK’s Department for Transport has published a report urging a number of changes intended to modernize the rules around taxis and private hire vehicles to take account of app-based technology changes which have piled extra pressure on already long outdated rules.

In addition to suggesting that local licensing authorities should have the power to cap vehicle licenses, the report includes a number of other recommendations that could also have an impact on ride-hailing businesses, such as calling for drivers to be able to speak and write English to a standard that would include being able to deal with “emergency and other challenging situations”; and suggesting CCTV should be universally installed in both taxis and PHVs (“subject to strict data protection measures”) — to mitigate safety concerns for passengers and drivers.

The report supports maintaining the current two-tier system, so keeping a distinction between ‘plying for hire’ and ‘prebooking’, although it notes that technological advancement has “blurred the distinction between the two trades” — and so suggests the introduction of a statutory definition of both.

“This definition should include reviewing the use of technology and vehicle ‘clustering’ as well as ensuring taxis retain the sole right to be hailed on streets or at ranks. Government should convene a panel of regulatory experts to explore and draft the definition,” it suggests.

Legislation for national minimum standards for taxi and PHV licensing — for drivers, vehicles and operators — is another recommendation, though with licensing authorities left free to set additional higher standards if they wish.

The report, which has 34 recommendations in all, also floats the idea that how companies treat drivers, in terms of pay and working conditions, should be taken into account by licensing authorities when they are determining whether or not to grant a license.

The issues of pay and exploitation by gig economy platform operators has risen up the political agenda in the UK in recent years — following criticism over safety and a number of legal challenges related to employment rights, such as a 2016 employment tribunal ruling against Uber. (Its first appeal also failed.)

“The low pay and exploitation of some, but not all, drivers is a source of concern,” the report notes. “Licensing authorities should take into account any evidence of a person or business flouting employment law, and with it the integrity of the National Living Wage, as part of their test of whether that person or business is ‘fit and proper’ to be a PHV or taxi operator.”

UK MP Frank Field, who this summer published a critical report on working conditions for Deliveroo riders, said the recommendations in the working group’s report put Uber “on notice”.

“In my view, operators like Uber will need to initiate major improvements in their drivers’ pay and conditions if they are to be deemed ‘fit and proper’,” he said in a response statement. “The company has been put on notice by this report.”

Though the report’s recommendation on this front do not go far enough for some. Also responding in a statement, the IWGB UPHD’s branch chair, James Farrar — who was one of the former Uber drivers who successfully challenged the company at an employment tribunal — criticized the lack of specific minimum wage guarantees for drivers.

“While the report has some good recommendations, it fails to deal with the most pressing issue for minicab drivers — the chronic violation of minimum wage laws by private hire companies such as Uber,” he said. “By proposing to give local authorities the power to cap vehicle licenses rather than driver licenses, the recommendations risk giving more power to large fleet owners like Addison Lee, while putting vulnerable workers in an even more precarious position.

“Just days after the New York City Council took concrete action to guarantee the minimum wage, this report falls short of what’s needed to tackle the ongoing abuses of companies operating in the so-called ‘gig economy’.”

We’ve reached out to Uber for comment on the report.

Field added that he would be pushing for additional debate in parliament on the issues raised and to “encourage the government to safeguard drivers’ living standards by putting this report into action”.

“In the meantime, individual licensing authorities have an important part to play by following New York’s lead in using their licensing policies to guarantee living wage rates for drivers,” he also said.

London’s transport regulator, TfL, has been lobbying for licensing authorities to be given the power cap the number of private hire vehicles in circulation for several years, as the popularity of ride-hailing has led to a spike in for-hire car numbers on London’s streets, making it more difficult for TfL to manage knock-on issues such as congestion and air quality (which are policy priorities for London’s current mayor).

And while TfL can’t itself (yet) impose an overall cap on PHV numbers it has proposed and enacted a number of regulatory tweaks, such as English language proficiency tests for drivers — changes that companies such as Uber have typically sought to push back against.

Earlier this year TfL also published a policy statement, setting out a safety-first approach to regulating ride-sharing. And, most famously, it withdrew Uber’s licence to operate in 2017.

Though the company has since successfully appealed, after making a number of changes to how it operates in the UK, gaining a provisional 15-month license to operate in London this summer. But clearly any return to Uber’s ‘bad old days‘ would be dealt very short shrift.

In the UK primary legislation would be required to enable local licensing authorities to be able to cap PHV licenses themselves. But the government is now being urged to do so by the DfT’s own working group, ramping up the pressure for it act — though with the caveat that any such local caps should be subject to “a public interest test” to prove need.

“This can help authorities to solve challenges around congestion, air quality and parking and ensure appropriate provision of taxi and private hire services for passengers, while maintaining drivers’ working conditions,” the report suggests.

Elsewhere, the report recommends additional changes to rules to improve access to wheelchair accessible vehicles; beef up enforcement against those that flout rules; as well as to support disability awareness training for drivers.

The report also calls on the government to urgently review the evidence and case for restricting the number of hours that taxi and PHV drivers can drive on the same safety grounds that restrict hours for bus and lorry drivers.

It also suggests a mandatory national database of all licensed taxi and PHV drivers, vehicles and operators, be established — to support stronger enforcement, generally, across all its recommended rule tweaks.

It’s not yet clear how the government will respond to the report, nor whether it will end up taking forward all or only some of the recommendations.

Although it’s under increased pressure to act to update regulations in this area, with the working group critically flagging ministers’ failure to act following a Law Commission review the government commissioned, back in 2011, writing: “It is deeply regrettable that the Government has not yet responded to the report and draft bill which the Commission subsequently published in 2014. Had the government acted sooner the concerns that led to the formation of this Group may have been avoided.”

UberEats UK couriers striking over pay changes

Groups of UberEats couriers are continuing to strike over pay and calling for a minimum £5 per delivery fee. Several strikes have been reported in London over the past few days, as well as other UK cities including Glasgow, Cardiff and Plymouth. Late last week Uber revealed a new pay structure which shrinks the per […]

Groups of UberEats couriers are continuing to strike over pay and calling for a minimum £5 per delivery fee. Several strikes have been reported in London over the past few days, as well as other UK cities including Glasgow, Cardiff and Plymouth.

Late last week Uber revealed a new pay structure which shrinks the per delivery fee it pays gig economy workers carrying out food deliveries on its platform in London, Manchester and Birmingham — to just £2.50.

Adding on the £1.50 per mile fee Uber also gives UberEats couriers means the new minimum delivery fee couriers can expect is just £3.50 — down from the £4 Uber was previously offering UberEats couriers in cities such as Manchester.

The change to its pay structure has triggered a number of wildcat strikes in recent days, with couriers reportedly stopping fulfilling orders and gathering to protest in groups — including outside Uber’s Aldgate East London office.

Additional strikes have been scheduled for today.

Uber says a reduction in the per delivery fee it pays couriers is necessary in order to increase the amount it pays out during busier periods and areas — under its so called ‘Boost’ system.

Boost adds a multiplier to couriers’ pay, depending on order demand. And according to an email Uber sent to couriers last week, which was reviewed by TechCrunch, the company says couriers have been unhappy with Boost, as is — saying they have told it multipliers are “too low and not available in enough places”.

Uber says it talked to “over 300 delivery partners in London” — and was “consistently” told Boost is not helping couriers “make more money the way it’s supposed to”.

As a result it says it’s boosting Boost. “With the new fares and planned Boost multipliers, earning potential is expected to be higher during busy periods and areas than it is today,” it writes.

However it concedes that the new pay structure may shrink couriers’ earnings outside the busy periods that are covered by Boost.

“With the new fees, this also means that payments may be lower outside of typical mealtimes or in quieter areas, when there are fewer orders waiting to be picked up,” it writes.

“It makes sense that more money is available to be made during mealtimes and busy areas, something we’ve heard partners recognise, and is reflected in these changes. We recommend partners check for Boost in the partner app before going online. That’s the best indication of when and where we expect to see demand for food delivery.”

Uber is also not quantifying exactly how much of an increase couriers will get under the new increased Boost multiplier. Nor exactly how Boost’s availability is being expanded as claimed (we’ve asked Uber to clarify the expansion of Boost and it told us it will send more details within a hour; we’ll update this report when we have them).

This is likely because Boost is a moving target — with a dynamic “live map” in couriers’ apps showing “the current Boosts for each zone”.

Uber’s explainer of the feature also notes that the multipliers “will change based on the time of day, and the day of the week, to help show you when and where it’s expected to be busiest”. (It gives example of 1.5x and 2x Boosts on its website — but without greater transparency from the company it’s impossible to know how representative those multipliers are or are not.)

So Uber making opaque Boost ‘increases’ at the same time as delivering a big reduction to per delivery fees make it pretty easy to see why riders are not happy.

The company has tried to smooth the way for the pay structure tweaks by offering a temporary minimum payment guarantee (for the next six weeks; until November 4) to offer couriers an earnings back-stop — in case they do not earn up to the peak minimums it expects them to (between £9p/h and £11 p/h, depending on time/day).

If couriers don’t earn the listed minimums Uber says it will “top them up” to the stated amounts.

However this top-up also comes with caveats and conditions and is not universally available to all couriers — with the following restrictions applied, according to Uber’s email to couriers:

To receive a minimum payment guarantee per hour, for every hour a partner spends online during an incentive period, they need to 1) confirm at least 80% of delivery requests received by them; and 2) complete at least one delivery.

“Of course, partners are entirely free to choose if, when and where to go online and whether or not they want to participate in this incentive,” the company adds — a caveat that’s essential given Uber does not want the thousands of “delivery partners” it relies upon to fulfil orders being legally classified as workers, rather than the independent contractors it claims they are.

How tightly a company controls labor can determine employment classifications. And worker status for riders on gig economy food delivery platforms would load millions in additional costs onto these businesses, regionally — such as meaning they’d be required to pay the UK minimum wage plus additional benefits such as holiday and sick pay.

(A legal challenge to Deliveroo’s employment classification of riders last year was not successful. However the UK high court recently agreed a union could challenge its opposition to collective bargaining — on human rights grounds.)

How platform companies use technology to manage remote workforces of contractors is certainly facing increasing legal scrutiny in Europe.

Uber lost a 2016 employment tribunal in the UK brought by a group of drivers for its ride-hailing business — who the courts judged to be workers, not contractors. (Though Uber continues to appeal.)

One of the key selling points gig economy platforms shout about when trying to attract fresh ‘partners’ to fulfil their platform propositions is the claim they offer ‘flexible’ work opportunities. But exactly how much real-world flexibility there is if earnings are so tightly tied to demand at least starts to look debatable.

Being free to work for a pittance unless you work within narrow and shifting hours of peak demand doesn’t sound quite so ‘free’ — and looks rather more precarious.

There’s also growing political awareness (again, at least in Europe) that individuals gigging via platforms risk being exploited by asymmetrical platform power — as a recent report into rival food delivery platform Deliveroo, carried out by UK MP Frank Field, suggested.

Field likened Deliveroo’s model to casual labor practices at British dockyards until the middle of the 20th century — with a few winning out at the expense of very many more who lose out.

UberEats pay structure changes suggest couriers willing and able to work during peak periods might gain but only at the expense of those who can’t deliver what the algorithm wants.

In an FAQ about the new pay structure for UberEats, Uber couches the amendments as designed to help riders “make the most out of your time spent on the app”, writing: “While the minimum fees have been reduced, we’ve also increased Boost multipliers and made it available in more parts of the city during busy mealtimes. We believe this will allow you to make better earnings when restaurants have the greatest need for your service, and make the most out of your time spent on the app.”

“We’ll also be hosting Earnings Advice Sessions, where our Experts will provide tips on how to maximise your time online. Be on the lookout for more information on how to sign up for one of those sessions,” it adds, showing how the company is offering casual sessions intended to encourage certain work patterns among giggers — while continuing to assert they are just independent contractors, not more tightly controlled workers.

The GMB Union, which is backing UberEats’ couriers’ calls for a £5 per delivery fee and holding a protest outside Uber’s office today, said it’s expecting 1,000 drivers to join in the demonstration.

The union criticised Uber for “heaping more misery on drivers with reductions masked as increases” under the new pay structure. “People now expect food to be delivered on demand without the human cost that goes with such a service,” added regional officer Steve Garelick in a statement. “Uber must sit up and listen to those who provide this service.”

Two years ago Deliveroo couriers staged similar strike protests after the company trialed a new pricing structure.

Comcast outbids Fox in $40B battle for Sky

Comcast has outbid Twenty-First Cenutry Fox for the UK’s Sky, a final step in what’s been a years-long takeover battle between the two media conglomerates. Comcast’s final offer gives Sky a roughly $40 billion price tag. Both companies upped their offers for Sky at the settlement auction Saturday, with Comcast offering £17.28 per Sky ordinary […]

Comcast has outbid Twenty-First Cenutry Fox for the UK’s Sky, a final step in what’s been a years-long takeover battle between the two media conglomerates.

Comcast’s final offer gives Sky a roughly $40 billion price tag.

Both companies upped their offers for Sky at the settlement auction Saturday, with Comcast offering £17.28 per Sky ordinary share and Fox offering £15.67 per share. Comcast initially offered £14.75. Fox’s original offer was £14.

Both companies will reveal their revised bids on Monday. Sky’s board will make it’s official recommendation by October 11.