You possibly can't escape Uber's lobbying


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Imagine opening a box of Cheerios this morning and finding a note from General Mills: impending genetically modified corn legislation would make your favorite breakfast unavailable or unaffordable.

That would feel strange and undesirable, wouldn't it?

That is exactly what app companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart are doing in California. Citizens who open these apps will see booming banners or e-mail explosions strengthening companies' position on a state labor law.

It's not uncommon for companies to want their customers to know about laws that could affect the way they work and for them to ask people to take action. However, young companies – especially Uber – assume that lobbying is going a step too far.

The simple act of being a customer now makes people an inevitable target for corporate representation.

This is because Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and other companies that hire large numbers of contractors fought against a law passed in California that would force them to classify at least one million workers in the state as workers.

California's argument is that app-based companies like Uber dictate how their drivers or other employees do their jobs. Therefore, workers should be considered workers with minimum wages and similar protection.

The companies have stated that the law does not apply to them and have fought it in court. They also endorsed an election campaign for California voters next month that would exempt app companies from the new law. Known as Proposal 22, the nomination would strike a kind of balance between state law and the corporate status quo.

There are complicated questions for voters to consider, including whether it is better to have more jobs with less safety net or fewer but arguably better jobs. (The Washington Post has a good explanation of the details of Proposition 22.)

But companies don't strive for complexity or subtlety. "Your fares and waiting times are likely to increase significantly," warned Uber on its California app. People have to click the message before they can ask for an Uber ride. Lyft and Instacart are conducting similar bombardments to get customers to choose their route.

Again, it is not wrong or unusual for companies to attempt to influence people in a business dispute or litigation. TV viewers regularly see warnings on their screens of contract disputes that threaten to darken their favorite channels. Netflix, Wikipedia, and other popular websites have issued warnings of changes in Internet policy that could not be ignored.

What these app companies do is both more invasive and a regular tactic and not uncommon. Uber has consistently performed versions of lobbying through its app in many parts of the US.

In-app messaging is likely to earn some voices for Uber and its friends. You can inform millions of potential voters in ways that seasoned politicians would envy. But corporate propaganda could also put people off. We should be able to drive around town or have a bowl of cereal without becoming a target for selfish corporate propaganda.

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This week, Apple will introduce new iPhone models and declare that they are the best smartphones in history. Amazon, Walmart, and other companies are going to trick you into buying something with fake "holidays" because … it's fall I think? I do not know why.

The whole point of Apple's annual iPhone reveal and Amazon's Prime Day is to generate a Pavlovian reaction to buy something – now! I get it. If your phone is held together with duct tape or you've been waiting for a good price for a new blender, this week can help.

Most of the time, however, these events serve the interests of companies, not ours. We don't have to buy things within a company's timeframe. (Today's newsletter is grumpy. Sorry. I'll blame the rain at On Tech HQ.)

Prime Day serves in part to attract people to Amazon's shopping club and to reinforce the habit of turning to Amazon as our default shopping destination. There's a predictable banality now regarding Apple's over-hyped Tupperware party for iPhones, but it draws a lot of attention to Apple's phones.