Pluralistic: 07 Aug 2021

Today's links

A basketball court. A giant in a business suit is leaning on the backboard, so tall his head is out of the shot. He is holding the basketball under one arm. Beneath the backboard are a woman and a man, looking up at the giant, angry expressions on their faces.

Doordash privacywashes its war on workers (permalink)

Dashers aren't stupid. They know that the difference between a profitable Doordash delivery and one where they earn less than they spend on gas is the size of the tip they get at the end of the job.

Of course, Doordash knows this too. The company – a corporate predator with a history of wage theft and worker misclassification – knows that its only hope of sustainability is to make real, profitable businesses like restaurants dependent on it.

If Doordash can impose a toll-booth between businesses and customers, it can siphon off the restaurants' profits (and if it kills the restaurants in the process, it can replace them with ghost kitchens – fake restaurants in shipping containers).

To get there, it needs to convince consumers – that's us – to reach for Doordash first whenever we want something delivered.

To get there, it needs to be really cheap – money-losingly cheap – offering bargains that we'd be idiots to pass up.

There's two ways that Doordash can be cheaper than everyone else. The first is to subsidize each sale, using its investors' cash to make up the shortfall. These investors buy into Doordash because they know that the money-losing period is a prelude to a profitable monopoly.

The second way Doordash keeps prices low is by violating labor law, misclassifying its workers as "independent contractors" so that it can pay sub-minimum wages and skip out on obligations like health care and pensions.

This labor exploitation is at the heart of every app-based gig business, and as you might expect, companies that are willing to cheat their workers in one way are willing to cheat them in other ways, too. Doordash is no exception.

Remember, Doordash pays its workers so little that they often lose money on deliveries, unless we opt for a tip that's large enough to make the difference. Doordash knows this, but it doesn't want its customers to know it.

If Doordash customers understood that the true price of the delivery included a tip that doubled or tripled the delivery fee, no one would use the service and it would collapse before it could rig the market to make real businesses dependent on it.

This presents a dilemma for Doordash. If workers are allowed to choose to skip unprofitable deliveries (as any "independent contractor" would) then its customers will quit the service and it will not attain a monopoly and its investors will lose everything.

To get workers to "agree" to unprofitable deliveries, Doordash had to figure out how to coerce or trick them. For a time, it simply bait-and-switched workers, paying a premium for drivers when they started, then reducing their wages in the hopes they wouldn't notice.

But Dashers aren't stupid. They organized the #declinenow movement, in which all the drivers in a region would decline any unprofitable delivery, knowing that the app would steadily increase the delivery fee they'd earn when this happened.

But Doordash had another tactic – it turned its app into a rigged casino game.

Customers who place an order with Doordash specify the tip before the delivery, so Doordash always knows what the total tip amount will be.

But Doordash hid that information from drivers. It would only show them part of the tip (as in, "You will earn at least $3 in tips on this run, but the true total may be much higher"). This turned deliveries into a slot machine where the house controlled every spin.

Here's the thing. Doordash calls itself a tech company, but it's not – it's just a piecework sweatshop draped in the trappings of tech to dazzle investors and regulators.

And because it's not a tech company, it was really bad at rigging the odds on its slot-machines.

It turned out that the dispatch messages that Doordash sent to drivers had the full amount of the tip in them. Doordash just programmed the driver app not to display this information.

But the app runs on the drivers' phones. If your phone knows something, you can learn it.

So Dashers started installing Para, an app that simply sniffed the full tip amount from dispatch messages and displayed it, letting drivers choose between unprofitable and profitable runs.

So Doordash changed its data-model so that Para stopped working. Rather than admit that it did this so that it could coerce workers into losing money on the job, it insisted that it was trying to protect customer privacy.

Doordash falsely claimed that Para was "scraping" customer data (not that there's anything wrong with scraping per se), and bruited about a lot of FUD, hinting that Para could steal drivers' banking details and SSNs.

As I write in my latest article for EFF's Deeplinks blog, Doordash didn't invent this kind of privacywashing, which is when a company blames its own misdeeds on incoherent privacy concerns.

Everyone loves getting in on privacywashing! Think of Facebook's idiotic lie that it shut down independent researchers who were exposing paid disinformation on the platform because they were putting user privacy at risk.

It's obvious that Facebook's corporate management cannot be trusted to make good privacy decisions on our behalf. Neither can Doordash management, who leak our info on the reg:

Corporations seize on any pretense to block interoperability, because they know that if third parties can plug into their tech, it makes it harder to sustain exploitative practices that harm users, workers and suppliers.

But when they make privacy noises, they never go to the obvious conclusion, namely, that our privacy should be safeguarded by democratically accountable laws, not corporate fiat:

In a world where an app is your boss, labor rights become indistinguishable from tech rights. Seize the means of computation! And all solidarity to Dashers, who continue to organize against their exploitative employer:

A courthouse in a grocery trolley; standing next to it is a 'fat cat' caricature from a Gilded Age newspaper cartoon. In place of a head, he has a sack emblazoned with a dollar symbol. The collage is placed on a blurred background of stacks of $100 bills and jewelry.

End bankruptcy shopping (permalink)

It looks like the Sacklers are going to get away with it. The multigenerational crime family that kickstarted the opioid epidemic by engineering overprescription of Oxycontin have the blood of 800,000 Americans on their hands and more than $10b in their pockets.

The Sacklers offer a masterclass in how to make and keep a blood-soaked fortune. They are masters of corporate secrecy. They are virtuosos at using philanthropy to launder their reputation. They are the kings of hiring vicious attack-lawyers to intimidate their critics.

They engineered medical disinformation; bribed doctors, pharmacists, and distributors; shifted blame to their victims by calling them "criminal addicts."

They smuggled billions offshort into financial secrecy havens, including rogue states like Switzerland.

And then, when the bill came due, they engineered a bankruptcy that extinguished all civil liability claims against them, walking away from their obligations to states, cities, patients and families, while clinging to the majority of their money.

The only thing worse than a world with the Sacklers in it would be a world where we learned nothing from the defects in the system that they exploited.

Thankfully, many are taking the lessons of the Sacklers to heart.

Thanks to activists like Anand Giridharadas, we're wising up to the way that "philanthropy" can be an act of profound selfishness, a way to use homeopathic droplets of a vast, corrupt fortune to wash away its dirty origins.

We are rethinking addiction as a public health crisis, not as a moral failing. We're becoming more critical of billionaires' use of secrecy to hide their financial crimes, and less willing to tolerate legal bullying from the fixers who enforce that omerta.

There's one more crack in the system that we musn't lose track of, one more Sacklerian evil to confront: the bankruptcy system.

When you or I go bankrupt, it ruins our lives. When the ultra-rich go bankrupt, it makes them richer.

That's all thanks to a handful of elite bankruptcy judges who practice a bizarre form of financial law that favors the wealthy and corrupt over their victims. Judges like Robert Drain of the Southern District of New York.

One thing the Sacklers showed us is how easy it is for the super-rich to ensure that Judge Drain hears their case.

57% of large company bankruptcies are heard by Judge Drain or his chief competitor for elite impunity, Houston's Judge Marvin Isgur.

Of the remainder, 39% are heard by Houston's Judge David Jones.

That's 96% of the nation's large corporate bankruptcies, presided over by three judges, who all champion the most corrosive form of elite impunity imaginable.

How can it be that nearly every large corporate bankruptcy is heard in either Houston or White Plains, NY? It's not as though either place is a white-hot center of corporate headquarters. How can the Boston Herald get its bankruptcy heard in Delaware?

Writing for The Hill, Judges Joan Feeney and Steven Rhodes write with Professors Jay Westbrook and Adam Levitin to call for an end to bankruptcy shopping.

They point out that The Boston Herald isn't based in Delaware – and neither are the Chicago Tribune, LA Dodgers, Nebraska Book Co, Tropicana Las Vegas, or Washington Mutual – but all of them managed to get their bankruptcies heard in Delaware, far from their creditors.

Not all creditors are created equal – if a company owes money to Citibank, moving to Delaware isn't going to outrun Citi's lawyers. But when it comes to the workers whose pensions are on the line, or customers who've been hurt or ripped off by the company…

"Runaway" bankruptcies shield companies from their hometown press, and require creditors to seek local counsel, not the lawyers they've used to pursue the company in its hometown.

In addition to Houston and SDNY, Delaware is a leading enabler of runaways, actively participating in the scam that lets debtors pick their judges.

The authors endorse Rep Zoe Lofgren's Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2021 (HR 4193), which has bipartisan cosponsorship from Rep Ken Buck, and will require companies to "file bankruptcy where their headquarters or principal assets are located."

Elite impunity is incompatible with a just society. When rule the law applies differently depending on how powerful you are, it's not the rule of law any more. Passing HR 4193 won't cost the US a penny, and will save billions for the victims of corporate crime.

(Image:, CC BY, modified; Todd McDougal, CC BY-SA, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago American lies about Canadian health care

#20yrsago Definitive primer on search-engine optimization

#15yrsago Duran Duran moves to Second Life, will gig there

#5yrsago Researchers learn about wire-fraud scam after Nigerian scammers infect themselves with their own malware

#5yrsago Foreign influence: how a Chinese businessman funneled $1.3M to Jeb Bush’s campaign

#1yrago California DMV's $50m/year data selloff

#1yrago Novartis's $678m bribery scandal

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Credit Slips (

Currently writing:

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  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

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  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

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Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla