The $40 billion taxi corporation Uber is known for getting what it wants. In cities and states across the country, and countries around the world, the company has justified its rejection of traditional vehicle-for-hire regulations by arguing that the rules simply don’t fit its innovative, “disruptive,” app-based business model.
Earlier this month, an Uber driver working without a required Houston permit was arrested for allegedly raping his passenger. The city subsequently required the corporation to ensure, once and for all, that its drivers submit to a municipal background check and licensing procedure. As a result, Uber promised to conduct a “manual audit” of its drivers in the area, but, at the same time, the company continues lobbying for statewide access to do business, which would negate existing city rules.
Reporters for Al Jazeera America have investigated accusations that Uber — operating much like an old-school cab company — engages in unfair competition, mistreats its own “driver-partners” and maintains poor safety standards. To learn more about Uber’s compliance with local regulations, we submitted public records requests to Houston under the Texas Public Information Act. Now Uber's lawyers have vowed to sue.
Uber’s attorneys objected to our requests for basic information — including how many of the company’s drivers obtained a Houston vehicle-for-hire permit — citing “trade secrets” and the “highly confidential nature of information concerning [Uber’s] operations.” Texas’s attorney general did not agree and ordered the city to turn over the documents. But then local officials gave Uber’s counsel another chance to object, this time to its decision — and so Uber did. In an email to the state attorney general, the firm’s counsel wrote that it will file a lawsuit next week to block Al Jazeera America from getting these documents.
No one from Uber or the law firm handling its appeals in Texas — Ogden, Gibson, Broocks, Longoria & Hall, LLP — will say how many freedom-of-information requests it is fighting in the Lone Star State. (Houston won’t provide these figures without another public-information request.) The attorney general’s office confirmed, however, that it is defending two similar public-records lawsuits filed by Uber, one concerning a request from the Houston Chronicle. Lara Cottingham of Houston’s regulatory affairs department said Uber has objected to 14 records requests in her agency alone.
Just what is Uber hiding? According to media attorney Joseph Larsen, corporations such as Uber routinely plead “trade secrets, proprietary information and confidential commercial information claims” to protect their dealings. And some of Houston’s agencies have been “absolutely terrible in terms of public-information-act requests,” adds Larsen, who recently won an open-records lawsuit against the city in Texas Supreme Court.
Al Jazeera’s request will soon be in court as well — an unfortunate outcome for Texans concerned about safety and fairness in the vehicle-for-hire industry. “We’re not talking about the ins and outs of the finances of the company. We’re just talking about what’s registered with the city,” says Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “That seems like basic information that ought to be public.”