Since October, Uber drivers in New York have received texts or emails from the ride-hail company that say plainly: Stop advertising for other companies or you’ll be deactivated.
The other company Uber is referring to? Its newest New York City competitor, Juno. The advertisement in question? Juno’s home screen.
At least one Uber driver has been deactivated for “displaying advertising of other ride-sharing companies while on Uber trips,” according to a text sent to the driver from Uber, while others received renewed threats of deactivation from the company via text or email.
The Independent Drivers Guild, a pseudo-driver union in New York organized by District 15 of the Machinist Union, which Uber has agreed to work with, said it has received “hundreds” of reports of deactivation warnings over the last two months from drivers who also used Juno, and 10 reports of being deactivated or otherwise kicked off the platform. Other drivers have complained of receiving similar threats on driver forums like Uberpeople.net.
Cameron Kruger, who has been driving for Uber since September 2015 and says he is a top-rated driver, was notified of his deactivation on Monday through a text that said there were multiple “reports” that he was still displaying Juno’s screen, and that “advertising ... is against [Taxi and Limo Commission] Rule 80-15G.”
The TLC Rule 80-15G does in fact state that advertising to passengers while on a ride is prohibited.
“A Driver must not sell, advertise or recommend any service or merchandise to any Passenger without prior written Commission approval.”
When a driver is offline, Juno devices default to an image of the logo and then a button that says “Invite (35%)” — referring to the current rider discount. Kruger said he has no other images or mentions of the company in his car. (A previous version of the Juno app featured the discount more prominently. Juno CEO Marco Talmon said the company changed it as part of a larger revamp of the app sometime in October.)
According to Uber, the company has confirmed with the TLC that advertising rider discounts is in violation of rule 80-15G in addition to its own terms of service. The company also said they believe that there is an ongoing TLC enforcement investigation into Juno’s advertising practices.
TLC spokesperson Allan Fromberg said he could not confirm or deny that either is true. Marco said that Juno is not aware of any kind of TLC investigation.
“We’ve discussed illegal advertising with our regulators, and will continue to educate drivers and riders when appropriate,” Uber spokesperson Alix Anfang told Recode. “We take deactivations seriously, and warn drivers to follow all TLC rules. Drivers are free to use any app at any time as long as they comply with our terms of service and TLC rules.”
Kruger was not deactivated without warning, however. Just two weeks prior, the New Jersey resident said he received a call from a woman who told him she was a third-party contractor for Uber tasked with reaching out to drivers regarding this issue.
Uber would not comment on the use of third-party contractors to make these calls.
“She said, ‘If you’re driving for any other ride-share app like Juno, we would appreciate if you could turn off the device while you have any Uber people in your car’,” Kruger told Recode.
When asked whether Juno’s display violated this specific rule, the TLC said rule infractions were determined on a case-by-case basis. (We sent them the Juno home screen, but the TLC declined to comment on whether it is a violation of the rule.)
“Considering the importance of individual circumstances in the rule’s interpretation, Uber’s warning may be construed as an overgeneralization,” Fromberg told Recode.
Uber has long had a stranglehold on New York City’s market share, with competitors like Lyft and Gett growing, albeit trailing far behind. But since launching in May, Juno managed to hit one million rides in just four months, and now performs 20,000 rides a day. (Compare that to Lyft’s 40,000 rides a day as of September.)
Though it has yet to put a dent in Uber’s rides per day — as of September, that number was close to 200,000 — Juno reached a considerable scale in a matter of months by feeding off of Uber and Lyft drivers’ frustrations with the existing services.
Juno, which pitches itself as the “driver-friendly” app by only charging drivers 10 percent commission and offering them a stake in the company, also achieved that growth without any formal advertising. Instead, Marco says, it depends on the drivers to act as evangelists and spread the word to other drivers and, more importantly, passengers.
Cutting off Juno’s only source of marketing could hurt the company’s tremendous growth, which Marco says he believes Uber is intimidated by.
“It is unfortunate that Uber is threatening its drivers in this way,” Marco told Recode. “The Juno app displays its name when it's offline. This is no more of an ad than ... an iPhone having an Apple logo on it. In fact, it is Uber that displays ads in cars, by having a big, lit Uber sign in the car.”
But it’s not simply the logo that Uber is taking issue with — Lyft drivers often display the company’s logo, and even place pink mustaches on their dashboard — it’s the mention of rider discounts.
“This is a feature of the app that allows a driver to invite someone to ride with Juno,” Marco said. “Similar features, allowing someone to invite another person are available in all ride-sharing apps, and will soon be rolled to riders as well as drivers.”
At the center of this issue is whether Uber actually can tell its workforce of independent contractors what they can and cannot do.
According to the New York State Department of Labor, an independent contractor is free from “supervision, direction and control in the performance of their duties.”
The argument that Uber, as well as Lyft, exercise undue control over drivers — often by threatening deactivation for unwanted behavior — has set the stage for the many class-action employment-misclassification lawsuits the companies have been subject to over the years.
When asked whether it is concerned that this most recent effort crosses the line between the relationship with 1099 workers versus employees, Uber emphasized that it encourages drivers to use any app at any time, and would not comment further.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.