keep calm and drive on

Uber is using GPS to punish drivers in China who get too close to protests

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Uber is using GPS on drivers’ phones to identify, and threaten, drivers loitering by taxi protests in China, the Wall Street Journal reports.

For months, there’s been tension in the country between ride-share companies and taxi drivers, who fear the new companies will make it even harder for them to make a living. Bloomberg View’s Adam Minter pointed out the severity of the situation:

“Drivers have not hesitated to disrupt the public’s daily life. In January, when drivers in at least six major cities decided to strike, they didn’t just stop working; they blocked traffic, and even besieged private cars associated with taxi hailing apps. In at least one instance, riot police were forced to intervene.”

That anger has prompted China to come down especially hard on Uber, says Minter:

“China’s crackdown on Uber, in other words, may have less to do with protecting the owners of politically powerful taxi services than placating the taxi industry’s increasingly volatile labor force.”

So Uber’s been in a shaky place, both with the government and with the taxi-driving community, for a long time now. But the incident that prompted Uber to explicitly warn drivers away from participating in protests, however, happened on Friday. On that day, a local official in Guangzhou reportedly hailed a car driven by one of Uber’s ride-share competitors, Didi Kuaidi. The official tried to arrest the driver, and set another major protest in motion. Quartz describes the scene:

“Dozens of Didi Kuaidi drivers who apparently caught news of the attempted sting surrounded the vehicle, waving signs in support of Didi and demanding the official, who was inside the car, let the driver off the hook. The mass of supporters blocked traffic, and police arrived to break up the crowds, photos posted on Sina Weibo (log-in required) show.”

The next day, Uber told its drivers to keep away from such protests. The Financial Times reports that Uber drivers in Hangzhou received a message imploring them: “Please don’t wreck the good urban environment you have all worked so hard to help build… If you are at the scene, leave immediately.”

More damningly, the message added that there would be consequences for those who didn’t follow instructions, and that Uber would track drivers’ GPS devices (i.e., personal phones) to make sure they comply. These measures, reports the WSJ, are intended to “maintain social order.” Not something you want to hear from an employer.

An Uber spokesperson in Beijing told Quartz that “we firmly oppose any form of gathering or protest, and we encourage a more rational form of communication for solving problems.”

It makes sense for Uber to tread lightly in China, where it is reportedly planning a rapid expansion, with a price tag of more than one billion dollars. Maybe Uber should spend some of that money figuring out how to deal with its (many) privacy issues, first.

Uber did not respond to requests for comment.