Weekend edition—Uber’s gig, China’s tourists, agritainment

Good morning, Quartz readers!

The job of an Uber driver is to provide rides. Is that outside the usual course of business for Uber, a ride-hail company?

The question may seem absurd to anyone who’s used Uber, but it’s vitally important under a 2018 decision from California’s highest court, codified in a bill passed this week by the state’s senate. The fate of the gig economy could turn on that question.

The gig economy relies on a simple arbitrage: Hire workers as independent contractors through online platforms to avoid the costs of traditional employment. To treat workers as actual employees would require gig-economy companies, many of which bleed cash, to fork over millions more in payroll taxes and workers’ compensation, and force them to comply with local minimum-wage laws.

Both the court decision and California’s bill outlined a new legal test that makes it harder for companies to classify workers as contractors. The test has three parts, of which the toughest—and the point on which many gig companies are expected to fail—is the question of whether the worker performs work outside the “usual course” of the company’s business.

To the average person, the answer in Uber’s case is probably a resounding no. Uber drivers give rides to Uber passengers and deliver food to Uber Eats customers. Uber isn’t Uber without them.

But Uber sees it differently. “Several previous rulings have found that drivers’ work is outside the usual course of Uber’s business, which is serving as a technology platform for several different types of digital marketplaces,” Uber chief legal officer Tony West said this week.

We’ve heard this before. Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick always said Uber wasn’t a rides company, but a “technology platform that connects riders and drivers.” The description played better to venture capitalists (technology platforms, so much sexier than rides companies!) and also gave Uber a handy legal defense for the employment classification claims that dogged it.

The California bill was a progressive win, but it is far from the end. Uber, no stranger to protracted legal fights, won’t relinquish its labor model easily. And while the conversation has come far, it is also right back where it began. —Alison Griswold

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

Quiet performer. Tesla’s Model 3 dominates electric-car sales in the US. But the Nissan Leaf has been winning around the world, with over 400,000 sold since 2010. As Michael J. Coren writes, the Leaf’s success suggests that Tesla could, despite its attempt to win over the masses, end up owning the premium slice of the EV market, while established automakers like Nissan sell lower-cost units on thinner margins—a bit like Apple versus Android smartphones.

Groundbreaking mutant. Watch the X-Men movies and you’ll see that Storm, played first by Halle Barry, is an ineffectual supporting character. But in the comic books, where she debuted nearly 50 years ago, she was a central figure who eventually became the squad’s steely leader. As Oliver Staley writes, Storm not only challenged racial and gender stereotypes, but also paved the way for generations of tough, assured female heroes in comics and movies.

MacBook rivals. At Apple’s big event this week, much of the attention was focused on the latest iPhones and a new subscription service. Less noticed, the company also announced the latest iPad. As Mike Murphy points out, iPads, with their keyboard support and high-res touchscreens, are increasingly capable of replacing much pricier Apple laptops—and will become even more so with an upcoming iPadOS.

Chasing the boom. Last year Chinese tourists made 150 million trips abroad, compared to 12 million in 2001. Countries and companies are bending over backwards to woo them, including by redesigning hotel rooms and offering WeChat Pay in restaurants. But as Isabelle Niu explains in a “Because China” video for Quartz members, Chinese tourists are changing in both their tastes and how they travel, making it hard to keep up with them.

Peasants, rise up! We’re living in an era of online feudalism. Instead of farm produce, today the new asset class is data. Like the days of yore, we’re giving up the fruits of our labor for our lordships to aggregate, expropriate, and monetize. As Don Tapscott, co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute, argues, we have become serfs to these internet landlords—and it’s time to revolt.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

All in the family. The Trump presidency can’t end soon enough for many Americans, but the Trump political dynasty should last well beyond it. For the Atlantic, McKay Coppins looks at the high-stakes power struggle among Trump’s adult children, particularly between Ivanka (and her husband Jared Kushner) and rising conservative star Don Jr., with each of them seeking clout, popularity, and, most important, their mercurial father’s approval.

A hard road. When news emerged that a North Korean refugee living in Seoul had died this summer of apparent starvation (along with her six-year-old son), it was hard for many outsiders to fathom. But not for fellow North Korean refugees, many of whom have also struggled to feed themselves in the wealthy metropolis. For the Los Angeles Times, Victoria Kim describes the travails of Han Sung-ok, and the increasingly elaborate shrine that now honors her.

Troll factories are so 2016. Protests ahead of the recent Moscow City Duma elections grabbed headlines this summer. Less noticed, the government diversified its online election interference strategies, as Meduza reports. In one example, what appeared to be ordinary neighborhood groups on social media posted identical links to “Lanovoy’s list,” candidate recommendations supposedly from a celebrity but really from a government that’s growing ever more sophisticated at spreading state propaganda online.

Questions of loyalty. Cathay Pacific has 26,000 employees, and many of them sympathize with the Hong Kong protesters. But workers at the airline, speaking to New York Times reporters, describe an atmosphere of fear, or “the white terror,” with supervisors quick to interrogate and fire anyone who supports the demonstrations in person or online. Some employees are deactivating their social media accounts, or changing their profile photos, in response.

Splat on the farm. US farmers are struggling amid depressed prices for their crops, but many have a lucrative side business: charging visitors to shoot fruits and vegetables from air guns. As Adam Thompson reports for the Wall Street Journal, a bushel of corn can fetch $100 when fired skyward, verus less than $4 when sold on the open market. Little wonder “agritainment” is booming, and who doesn’t enjoy launching pumpkins at old cars?

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, unwanted veggies, and Storm’s best X-Men issues to hi@qz.com. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and Kira Bindrim.