In a recent hearing regarding a lawsuit against Uber, San Francisco U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria believes the company’s driver-rating system could be affected by passengers’ racial bias.
Thomas Liu, an ex-Uber driver, filed a lawsuit claiming the star-based rating system puts non-white drivers at risk of termination. Liu’s suit claims Uber drivers have to maintain a minimum average rating close to perfect. He believes he was terminated when his star rating fell below 4.6 stars out of 5.
According to the lawsuit, “Uber has long known that relying on a system that depends on passenger evaluation of drivers is discriminatory, as Uber is aware that passengers frequently discriminate against Uber drivers.” Liu is seeking unspecified damages for himself and other allegedly affected drivers. He is also seeking a court order banning Uber from using its star-based rating system to terminate drivers.
Liu, who is Asian, from San Diego, and has a slight accent, noticed passengers appearing hostile to him because of his race. Passengers canceled rides Liu had accepted after they saw his picture and others asked him where he was from in an unfriendly manner. This was in 2015. His driver account was deactivated in October of that year. Uber does not believe its rating system is driven by racial bias, but the company did acknowledge how “personal bias” impacts tipping back in a blog post in 2016.
At the hearing, Judge Chhabria noted that “the interference that Uber’s practice is racially discriminatory is … strong.” The judge mentioned research that indicates discriminatory terminations happen when online marketplaces tie employment to consumers’ ratings.
While Uber has not responded to this lawsuit, the company released the following statement in a court filing in May 2021: “Ratings for any given ride can be affected by numerous issues that have nothing to do with the race of – or possibly even the service provided by – the driver. And even if Liu could offer enough facts to make his disparate impact claims plausible, he has nothing more than conjecture on top of conjecture to claim that Uber intentionally discriminated against non-white drivers by using its neutral rating system.”
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