Are Tech Companies Using the Muslim Ban to Woo Customers?

A morally superior ride?
A morally superior ride?

The politics of President Trump's so-called Muslim ban has extended into unexpected territory — pitting California tech giant Uber against California tech giant Lyft.

Uber has taken a hit in the court of public opinion after it announced that it was temporarily doing away with surge pricing to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in the wake of taxi drivers' Saturday boycott to decry the president's executive order. Social media lashed out with the #DeleteUber hashtag, and rival Lyft seemed poised to soak up the ebbing tide of ride-hailing customers.

The next day Lyft, decrying Trump's Muslim ban as a threat to "the values of our community," announced it was donating $1 million to the ACLU over four years "to defend our Constitution." It subsequently got tons of business and millions of dollars in free advertising via press reports. So let's be real here: Big Tech's attempts to appear pro-immigrant in the wake of Trump's misstep are capitalizing on a life-altering policy affecting tens of thousands of immigrants.

"It's right to be cynical," says Sarah T. Roberts, a UCLA information studies professor who's an expert on ethics in the digital domain. "The important lesson here is that these companies are going to react to the public will. But it's not like they're inherently moral."

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, already under fire for agreeing to join Trump's business advisory committee, said over the weekend that the company would pony up $3 million to help defend Uber drivers shut out of the United States by Trump's executive order. But his lukewarm statement about the president's action didn't help Uber's social media standing. While Lyft reps said Trump's move was "antithetical to both Lyft's and our nation's core values," Kalanick said this:

While every government has their own immigration controls, allowing people from all around the world to come here and make America their home has largely been the U.S.’s policy since its founding. That means this ban will impact many innocent people—an issue that I will raise this coming Friday when I go to Washington for President Trump’s first business advisory group meeting.

Top execs at Apple, Google, Facebook and Airbnb have all spoken out against Trump's so-called Muslim ban, which applies to people entering the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. "Airbnb's CEO Brian Chesky announced via Twitter that Airbnb is offering free accommodations to those affected by the recent U.S. travel ban," a spokeswoman for Airbnb said via email.

Even Nike's CEO, Mark Parker, said in a statement that American values were "being threatened by the recent executive order in the U.S. banning refugees, as well as visitors, from seven Muslim-majority countries." He continued: "This is a policy we don't support."

These stances and pledges aren't exactly altruistic, according to UCLA's Roberts. "It's a mistake for people to put that kind of faith in corporations," she says. "At the end of the day they have one objective, which is produce value for shareholders."

Uber, for example, has advertised openings for drivers saying they can earn $25 an hour, when just a fraction of those taking the ride-hail firm up on its offer will make that much, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Many of the firm's behind-the-wheel "partners" are immigrants, of course.

Roberts argues that Lyft is in the same boat, taking advantage of people who need the extra cash by promising a well-paying gig that often isn't. "I find it interesting that people see Lyft as somehow a better moral choice when both companies actively worked to undermine organized professional drivers and have also just greatly capitalized on the race to the bottom for people who have had to monetize everyday aspects of their lives," she says.

She describes the strategy as "tech exceptionalism" — exceptionalism that she argues really only exists on paper: "The way tech firms see themselves as being a cut above when it comes to morality — are they really that exceptional?"

Perhaps it's a question we should all ask the next time a social media bandwagon like #DeleteUber comes along.


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