May 8 8:00 AM

The gap at the app: Uber’s practices fall short of written policy

Uber's global reach may be spreading, but the company is beset by criticism of its safety, privacy and accessibility practices.
Evelyn Hockstein / Polaris

Editor's note: This post has been updated with Uber’s comments below.

Uber, an app-based upstart in the taxi business, has quickly become a global brand and darling of venture capital, valued at more than $40 billion. It is also seen as a bellwether of American labor: either an elegant model of convenient, part-time gigging, or the death of reliable, professional work.

In less than three years, according to company research, Uber has recruited some 160,000 U.S. drivers to earn full- and part-time income off the app. These drivers now outnumber yellow cabs in New York City.

Al Jazeera America has followed the swift rise of Uber, especially its Uber X brand, which allows ordinary car owners to become taxi drivers. Uber is popular with riders but has been taken to task over drivers’ working conditions, safety concerns and corporate misdeeds.

The casual-taxi corporation is also litigious: Last month it filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas and the city of Houston to keep documents related to public safety out of the hands of Al Jazeera America and the Houston Chronicle. In the course of our reporting, Al Jazeera had asked Houston for records that would reveal such basic information as how many Uber drivers applied for permits to work in the city. Uber argues that these are “trade secrets” and has successfully blocked their release until at least October. Meanwhile, it is pushing hard for permission to operate in the entire state of Texas and has lobbyists in 44 other states. 

Uber says it puts technology to use for “the greater good” and poses a challenge to the secretive, monopolistic taxi industry. Yet its objections to public disclosure suggest a gap between promise and practice.     

A review of Uber’s written policies and public statements reveals a number of such discrepancies:  

Access for disabled riders

Claim: Uber helps the disabled.

Reality: Uber refuses to transport people with service animals, a lawsuit contends, and offers wheelchair-accessible vehicles in very few U.S. cities.

The company has a “zero-tolerance policy regarding all forms of discrimination.” When it comes to passengers with disabilities, Uber notes that it’s “unacceptable to refuse” service, that it “expects compliance” with all relevant laws and that “service animals must be accommodated.”

Yet these commitments pertain to drivers, not the company itself. Uber has argued in court that it is not bound by anti-discrimination statutes. It claims only to be a tech platform, not an employer or transportation carrier.

In a recent case filed in California, the National Federation of the Blind alleges that Uber’s drivers have “repeatedly” refused to serve customers with service animals. Uber filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on February 5, claiming that it exists only in "cyberspace" and because it doesn’t own any cars it doesn't qualify as a "public accommodation" covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A federal district court judge disagreed in mid-April, ruling that, regardless of Uber’s physical infrastructure, it could qualify as a “travel service” subject to the ADA and its service-animal requirement.

Passengers in wheelchairs have also complained about Uber. In Texas, the company is pushing for a bill that would exempt its drivers from having to operate wheelchair-accessible vehicles. An Uber spokesperson said before a Texas House committee in early April that it does not require wheelchair-accessibility per se — since it claims not to own a fleet — but that folding wheelchairs can be accommodated [video at 24:30]. Uber has made similar statements in California.

Uber representatives did not respond to questions for this article.*

Safety concerns

Claim: Uber provides a safe ride to customers and drivers.

Reality: Uber opposes strict background checks and permit requirements for its drivers, and says it’s not responsible for rider safety. On the driver side, Uber is slow to respond to complaints and has failed to aid law enforcement in investigating assault and harassment.

In written materials and public testimony, Uber sells itself as a “safe, reliable option” — a corporation for whom safety is the “utmost concern.”

Prospective drivers for the non-luxury Uber X brand, however, are not subjected to ongoing vehicle inspections or required to receive on-the-road training. And there’s a limited background check: no fingerprinting required, unlike for most taxi drivers in the U.S.

Safety advocates blame Uber’s lax screening procedures for the rapes and sexual assaults alleged against drivers in Boston, Houston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Paris, London and New Delhi. But the company has fought city and state attempts to institute stricter processes, including fingerprinting, and stopped doing business in San Antonio, Texas and the entire state of Kansas rather than comply with their background-check requirements. 

The Texas bill backed by Uber could prohibit cities in that state from setting any rules for app-based vehicles for hire. On April 22, after the bill passed the transportation committee, legislators introduced the wrong version of this bill: a draft unusually favorable toward Uber. Legislators have vowed to fix this “drafting problem” during floor debate. 

But passengers with driver complaints may be out of luck. Uber’s legal disclaimer informs app-users that drivers “may not be professionally licensed or permitted” and that Uber bears “no responsibility or liability” related to any service (in excess of $500 anyway).

Company policy states that safety is a “two-way street between our Driver Partners and Riders.” Yet many drivers have accused Uber of focusing solely on the rider experience, to the detriment of those behind the wheel.

When the Uber app makes a connection, the passenger sees the driver’s headshot, first name, rating and a photograph of the vehicle. The driver sees only the rider’s first name and rating. Everything else remains confidential, unless something goes wrong.

Uber’s written policies say that it "may provide to a third party any information” about a driver in case of an accident, dispute or conflict with a customer. But there is no analogous language explaining when rider information can be disclosed, and Uber drivers across the country say the corporation applies a double standard.

A woman driver in San Francisco told BuzzFeed that Uber offered no assistance when she felt threatened by a male passenger: He’d left his phone in her car, then improperly used the app’s messaging and “lost and found” features to harass her and show up drunk at her home.

Uber says it “disclose[s] data to law enforcement when we determine that we are required to do so by law.” However, according to a blogger and driver in London (who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution), Uber does not readily provide customer information to the police. After a woman passenger physically assaulted this driver and called him racial slurs, he asked Uber for her name in order to file a criminal complaint. When the corporation refused to do so without a police order, the driver had local law enforcement officials submit a request — but after two months, the driver says, Uber still has not responded. (The officer in charge of the case could not be reached.) “What if I had been murdered or seriously injured — would it be defensible for Uber to continue to prevent the apprehension of suspects by not releasing data?” the London driver wrote via email.

Other Uber drivers in Texas, Illinois and New York (all of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation) say the company has ignored their grievances against rude, even threatening customers. They add that the rating system — in which their success depends on rider input, on a 1- to 5-star scale — limits drivers’ ability to defend themselves, something akin to the “weaponization” of Yelp restaurant ratings.

Rider privacy

Claim: Uber protects rider privacy.

Reality: Uber tracks consumer data and opposes privacy laws.

Uber claims to give riders strong privacy protections and, according to its own report, has devoted significant resources to this end. Yet it shares data on customers and drivers with numerous third parties and explains in its privacy policy that Uber "cannot control the use of cookies" — pieces of tracking code whose data could be used for diverse applications from targeted advertising to supplementing a background check.

Cookies allow advertisers and other entities to profile individual rider behavior and combine this data with other sources such as online browsing histories and public records. Collecting such information can be relatively harmless, but the FTC has noted that its use in such sensitive areas as insurance and employment screenings, for example, is largely not covered by existing law and has called for further regulation.

Uber has also been criticized for its internal use of customer records. BuzzFeed journalist Johana Bhuiyan described how an Uber executive accessed her personal ride history and presented it to her when they met for an interview. Forbes has reported on a tool known as “God-view,” which lets Uber employees see the location and personal information of passengers in real time. Uber executives reportedly show off this tool regularly at launch parties.

Citing these abuses, state legislators in California have proposed a bill that would strengthen privacy protections for ride-sharing customers. Uber and a coalition of technology groups oppose the bill, arguing that the definition of “personal information” is too broad and that the measure would make these platforms “inoperable and unusable.” TechNet, an industry lobby group, testified that the information collected by “ride-sharing” apps is not as worthy of protection as that amassed by companies in health and finance. Supporters of the privacy bill contend that location data is, in fact, significant and warrants more protection than state law currently offers.

* * *

As Uber continues to expand — into food delivery, cargo services and even public transit — riders and drivers will expect more and more from the company. Will it keep its many promises along the way?


* Update: Shortly after this article was published, Uber spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo sent an email stating that the company has pilot programs to make wheelchair-accessible vehicles avaialble in New York, Philadelphia, Houston, San Diego, Seattle, Los Angles, Manila and Sydney. With respect to criminal background checks for drivers, Montalvo wrote that Uber's process is "multi-layered" and goes back seven years. Uber would not comment on the ADA lawsuit or privacy legislation in California. 


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