One such sting involved a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Ore., named Erich England, who posed as a rider and attempted to hail an Uber as part of an operation in 2014, when Uber launched its service in Portland without seeking approval from the city. As the Times reported: “But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in the app did not represent actual vehicles. And the Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged Mr. England and his colleagues—essentially Greyballing them as city officials—based on data collected from the app and in other ways. The company then served up a fake version of the app populated with ghost cars, to evade capture.”
There’s a clear question of legality here, which Uber declined to discuss on the record. The attorneys general in five states—California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas—either declined to speak on the record about whether they were investigating Uber over the program, or did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.
But there’s something else at stake here, too. Uber’s ghost app raises a pressing question for anyone who lives or works, at least part of the time, on the internet—and, in the United States, that's nearly everyone: What does the right to refuse service look like in digital environments?
At least some of the time, as Uber proves, it’s invisible. And the implications of this invisibility are troubling.
It’s only natural that Uber would be the company to push this question forward, and not just because of its astonishing streak of recent controversies. Uber has dramatically reshaped the way people think about the integration of digital and physical worlds, and the possibilities for using digital interfaces to make something happen at the street level. Today, people fully expect to be able to touch a button on their phone to make a car pull up to the curb they’re standing on; a few short years ago the concept was magical. This shift in expectation happened so quickly that what it means for other cultural norms and laws—like the right to refuse service—is still uncertain.
In brick-and-mortar environments, being refused service happens face to face—meaning, the person being turned away from a bar, for instance, knows they're being denied entry, even if they don’t always agree with the rationale. But what happens when there’s an elaborate facade designed to keep a person from knowing that they were never allowed in?
In Uber’s view, this strategy offers an added layer of protection to drivers, not only preventing potential harm but possible retaliation that might come from someone after they find out they have been blocked. In principle, this makes sense—it’s like building in a layer of plausible deniability to de-escalate tension. As a destructive force to an industry long dominated by taxis, Uber has met huge resistance in some markets, and the outcome has been messy, to say the least.