Uber appeals California’s $59M fine over data on sexual assaults


Uber was the first ride-hailing company to voluntarily release a transparency report about serious safety incidents.

Angela Lang/CNET

California’s Public Utilities Commission fined Uber $59 million in December for refusing to turn over detailed information about sexual assaults that happened during its rides. The ride-hailing company had 30 days to pay. As the deadline looms for next week, Uber instead appealed the order on Wednesday.

The dispute stems back to an 84-page “safety transparency” report Uber voluntarily published in December 2019, whch showed about 6,000 cases of sexual assault occurred during its rides in 2017 and 2018. After releasing that report, the CPUC asked Uber for further data on each incident since it’s the state agency responsible for regulating transportation companies.

“For the past year, we’ve been asking them to reconsider that approach by sitting down and listening to [survivor] advocates,” Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, said in an interview on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, those requests have been repeatedly rebuffed. Instead, now, the CPUC has come back with this astronomical fine against Uber.”

Over the past few years, hundreds of passengers and drivers have come forward alleging sexual assault during rides. Several lawsuits have been brought against Uber by people saying they were raped, kidnapped and groped by the service’s drivers. Similar allegations have been made against Uber’s rival Lyft, which has been sued by more than 50 women alleging sexual assault by its drivers. Lyft also pledged in May 2018 to publish a safety report, but it’s yet to be released.

In an effort to reduce sexual assaults, Uber has added several safety features to its app. Those include push notifications for drivers and riders if there’s an unexpected long stop along the way and a text-to-911 feature. Uber has also pledged to release safety transparency reports every two years.

“The fact that Uber has gone out and shown the world the data that they have [on sexual assaults] was a big step,” said Scott Berkowitz, the founder and president of anti-sexual assault organization RAINN, which has partnered with Uber for survivor resources. “We want to see other companies be similarly transparent about what they’re doing.”

In its requests for additional data from Uber, the CPUC sought personal information from sexual assault survivors that it said could be sealed and confidential. The agency said having such material could help it prevent future incidents and ensure ride-hailing was operating safely in the state. Uber refused to provide the data, arguing that handing over such information could re-traumatize the victims and jeopardize their anonymity.

“This is about more than simply Uber versus a regulator over some regulatory issue,” West said. “This really is about protecting survivors and acting in a survivor-centric way.”

In its ruling in December, the CPUC said that in its dealings with Uber the company had “inserted a series of specious legal roadblocks to frustrate the Commission’s ability to gather information.” The agency also said, however, that Uber could provide the data in an anonymized format by using a code or some other signifier besides the victim’s name.

In its appeal on Wednesday, Uber said it’s contradictory for the CPUC to “acknowledge that victims of sexual assault are entitled to protect their personal information” but still retroactively fine Uber millions of dollars. It also said that the “draconian and illegal fine sends a dangerous message to anyone who stands up for the privacy and autonomy of sexual assault victims in the face of intrusive demands.”

Ultimately, if Uber loses this battle, it will be forced to pay the fine and California could revoke its license to operate in the state.

The CPUC didn’t respond to request for comment.

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