Cable boxes, ridesharing and the right to be represented by a bot

Here are two tech policy issues that don’t seem related but are: the FCC’s current push to open up the set-top-box, and the lawsuits challenging Uber’s and Lyft’s classification of drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The way to see the connection is through the lens of control vs. competition.  More specifically, they are about breaking apart the service and the interface, and how that can benefit competition and innovation.

In the case of the set top box, the FCC wants to require that cable providers allow any set top box or tv to connect directly to the cable wire and decrypt the schedule and content — so that any box or TV of the user’s choosing can build an interface around the TV/video listings and video content.

Under the FCC’s plan, Comcast and other cable providers would not have the exclusive right to the interface, and would instead be required to let customers use a box or TV or their choosing.  The FCCs reasoning here is twofold: the first reason is cost — consumers spend an average of $231 per year (or $20B total, annually) renting set-top boxes from cable companies; and the second is innovation: users of Comcast’s cable service will recognize this interface, which has existed unchanged (until very recently with the introduction of the X1 box) for at least a decade:


Because Comcast and other cable/video providers control both the service and the interface, and there’s no machine-readable API for accessing info through a third-party device, they’re able to charge high fees for the boxes, and are under no pressure to innovate on the interface.

So, how does that relate at all to what’s going on with Lyft and Uber and the worker classification lawsuits?

The focus of the ridesharing labor debate has been on classification of drivers as “independent contractors” or “employees”, which, at its heart, is about control.  The more control that’s exerted, the more it looks like an employee relationship, the less that’s exerted, the more it looks like an independent contractor relationship.

What’s so confusing is that in an app-mediated world, where platforms straddle the line between being “services” and “marketplaces”, control looks different than it did in the industrial era.  Alex Rosenblat from the Data & Society Institute has taken an interesting look at this.  Her research examines the often subtle ways in which data-rich platforms exert control over their users/partners/workers.  At the heart of it is the information asymmetry that exists between platforms and workers — which platforms make use of to exert control in subtle ways that look and feel very different than in the traditional employer / employee relationship.

The parallel, then, to the set-top box debate is that separating the service from the interface may be the most elegant regulatory intervention here, as opposed to the more traditional interventions proposed by labor advocates.  My colleague Albert calls this the right to be represented by a bot.

Imagine a “driver bot” that could interface with ridesharing services on behalf of the driver, much the way that an AppleTV or Roku would interface with Cable programming under the FCC’s proposal.  Such a bot would be able to ingest information from ridesharing services, including rides available, pricing information (surges, etc), ratings and transactional data, etc., and interact with the services on behalf of the driver.

Over time, and deployed across the entire ridesharing fleet, such a bot service would be able to counterbalance the information asymmetry that Rosenblat describes, by analyzing and interpreting data collected across the entire network, and presenting it to drivers in a transparent and consistent way.

Why would rideshare platforms want to go along with such a scheme?  Because doing so would bolster their arguments that they really do have an arms-length, independent contractor relationship with their drivers — one that truly delivers freedom, flexibility and choice.  And, because the alternative — using heavy-handed, outmoded labor law to force the square peg of platform workers into the round hole of W2 employees — would be a much tougher proposition.

I suspect that over time, more and more regulators outside of the telecom space will take this kind of information-centric approach, recognizing the power dynamics embedded in data-rich systems.  It strikes me that such an approach will be necessary to move from a regulation 1.0 era to a regulation 2.0 era.

Crypto debate: separating Security from Control

For the past few weeks, I’ve been following the FBI / Apple phone unlocking case, and digging deep into the debate around encryption, security and privacy. This debate is as old as the sun, and the exact same arguments we’re going through now were fought through 20 years ago during the first crypto wars and… Read more »

The Freedom to Innovate and the Freedom to Investigate

Earlier this week, I was at SXSW for CTA‘s annual Innovation Policy Day. My session, on Labor and the Gig/Sharing Economy, was a lively discussion including Sarah Leberstein from the National Employment Law Project, Michael Hayes from CTA’s policy group (which reps companies from their membership including Uber and Handy), and Arun Sundararajan from NYU, who… Read more »

Internet meets world: rules go boom

Since 2006, I’ve been writing here about cities, the internet, and the ongoing collision between the two. Along the way, I’ve also loved using Tumblr to clip quotes off the web, building on the idea of “the slow hunch” (the title of this blog) and the “open commonplace book” as a tool for tracking the… Read more »

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Yesterday at one of our bi-monthly team deep dives at USV, we got into the conversation of essentially “Big Innovation” vs. “Small Innovation”.  Those who have followed USV for some time know that at the core of the investment thesis is a belief in “decentralized”, “bottom-up” innovation — the kind that really became possible with… Read more »

Beam should have a hardware API

We’ve got a few Beam telepresence robots at USV, and use them all the time.  Fred has written about them here.  We had a team meeting today, and we had two beams going at once — Fred and I were the first to arrive, and we were chatting beam-to-beam — he in LAUtah, me in Boston,… Read more »

Learning to skate

For the past few winters, I’ve been teaching my kids to ice skate.  Above is my son Theo at hockey practice a few weeks ago. At a certain point along the way, I got the bug and realized that skating was awesome and hockey was a beautiful sport.  So for the past year or so,… Read more »

Zero-rating: putting Net Neutrality to the test

It’s been an intense 10 months since the FCC approved its latest Open Internet rules (aka Net Neutrality). On the wired side, we’ve seen the unbundling of content, as channels such as HBO (via HBO Now) and ESPN (via Sling TV) have split from cable to go “over-the-top” with direct-to consumer offerings.  These are a direct result of the… Read more »

Hello, 2016

Breaking the ice — been off the blogs for quite a while now. Looking forward to this year, the way I tend to every year.  2015 was a tough one for me personally — went through a bunch of shit on the family front that both demonstrated how tough life can be and also how… Read more »

As Massachusetts ponders ride-sharing regs, where’s the data?

Today, hearings begin at the Massachusetts state house over how to regulate the budding ride-sharing / on-demand transportation industry (Uber, Lyft, et al). Adam Vaccaro over at has a good summary of the various competing bills — a pro-Uber bill that welcomes new Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) with relatively light-touch regulation, and a pro-taxi… Read more »

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my years as a human, it’s that life is hard and people need help in order to make things work. That help can come in many forms: family, friends, co-workers, teachers, unions, healthcare providers, agents, assistants, coaches, therapists, strangers on the internet, you name it.  Point is, we… Read more »

Pain x Resistance = Suffering (the case for throughput)

For the past nine months or so, I’ve been seeing a therapist specializing in mindfulness. Perhaps the best decision I’ve ever made. One of the things we spend a lot of time talking about is resistance – everyone has their own quirks and issues, and that’s one of mine.  The tendency to hit the brakes when… Read more »

Brutal honesty delivered kindly

On my way to SF this week, I stopped over in Boulder, visited Techstars and then had dinner with Brad Feld, where got to talking about the dynamics inside and around venture firms.  He has obviously been doing this for a long time, and for me, less of a long time (3-1/2 yrs at this point)…. Read more »

The Blockchain as verified public timestamps

Two weeks ago at USV’s annual CEO Summit, Muneeb Ali from OneName explained the blockchain in a way I hadn’t heard before, and which I thought was really helpful: the blockchain is time. That’s a somewhat abstract way of saying it, so more concretely we could say that: The blockchain is database of verified public timestamps. Every… Read more »

The more things change…

Here’s a slide from 2009, when we were convincing transit agencies to open up their data, and then later building MTA BusTIme:   And here’s one from yesterday, from a talk I gave at the Shift Conference (blog post to follow w more on that):    

Regulation, the Internet way

Today at USV, we are hosting our 4th semiannual Trust, Safety and Security Summit.  Brittany, who manages the USV portfolio network, runs about 60 events per year — each one a peer-driven, peer-learning experience, like a mini-unconference on topics like engineering, people, design, etc. The USV network is really incredible and the summits are a big… Read more »

Where do web standards come from?

I’ve spent the better part of the last six years thinking about where web standards come from.  Before joining USV, I was at the (now retired) urban tech incubator OpenPlans, where, among other things, we worked to further “open” technology solutions, including open data formats and web protocols. The two biggest standards we worked on were GTFS,… Read more »

Wanted: email apology bot

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