For the first time in its history, Uber this month reported data on the dangers of sexual assault on its app. Now it's facing calls to action, requiring the ride-hailing giant to make tough decisions on how to balance victims' wishes with demands to report dangerous riders and passengers to local regulators or law enforcement - or both.
The dilemma: Does Uber have an obligation to tell authorities what it knows about potentially dangerous users of its app - or do more to ensure victims come forward?
Uber doesn't automatically go to police with the reports, which include potential felonies. Instead, it says it has adopted victim-centric policies aimed at leaving the decision to report up to the complaining party.
That means law enforcement was involved in only 37 percent of reported rape cases, Uber said in its safety report. Uber disclosed that roughly 6,000 reports of sexual assault and 464 allegations of rape took place in its rides over the course of 2017 and 2018.
It's a complicated matter. Some institutions including universities and transit authorities encourage reporting to law enforcement as a way to nab potential repeat offenders and protect public safety at large. But many advocacy groups say the decision should be left entirely up to the victim, citing the additional trauma of facing the perpetrator, the pain of being forced to testify and the relatively low likelihood of a conviction.
Those conflicting viewpoints have led to soul-searching at the ride-hailing giant.
"I think our responsibility is great; it is enormous. But I wouldn't for a second pretend to make these decisions on a stand-alone basis," Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in an interview with The Post earlier this month, referring to the more than 200 advocacy groups Uber consulted with on the issue. "We run a platform, but it's ultimately taking input from the advocates and understanding what the best survivor-centric responses are. And their advice is this: The survivor should decide."
Uber spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the company is working on developing best practices for victims who do want to report, and it's developing a policy that would enable two-way information sharing on deactivated drivers with rival Lyft and others. Uber currently directs victims to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, for support services and for assistance going to police, should they choose that route.
The report, an 84-page summation of Uber's safety problems such as sexual assault, violent crime and road deaths, laid bare the platform's problems in the wake of its meteoric growth over the past decade. In part because Uber and Lyft have so quickly changed the transportation landscape - pushing aside taxis and pulling riders from traditional transit options - government agencies were caught flat-footed in their efforts to regulate them. Uber alone shuttles passengers on more than a billion US rides per year, using public roads and infrastructure to conduct its business.
In the wake of the report, presidential candidates slammed Uber for what they said was its role in creating a climate of sexual assault.
"Uber's safety investigators are reportedly more concerned about protecting their company from liability than protecting passengers and drivers," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a Democratic presidential candidate, in a tweet responding to Uber's report.
Uber disputed the allegation by investigators that protecting the company came first, following a Washington Post report in September that said its safety investigators were coached to act in the company's interest first.
Lawmakers have had some success in exerting pressure to institute thorough background checks and better safety measures, but Uber and Lyft didn't appear before a House Transportation subcommittee hearing called in October.
In large part, the companies are navigating new territory, legal and regulatory experts say, and there aren't established guidelines for how private companies collecting information about sexual assault on their platforms should act.
Uber has taken a different tactic in London, after officials there cracked down on what they saw as "a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of safety issues," according to the transportation authority Transport for London, including Uber's "approach to reporting serious criminal offences."
In response, Uber adopted a framework to share information with police when serious cases arose. "Our new approach will pass directly to the police information about any serious incident reported to us by riders," the company says of the London policy on its website.
That's in direct contradiction to its policy in the US.
"Cities formulate their own rules and regulations," Uber's Anderson said. "Our survivor-centric policy stands globally and we continue to work with law enforcement to support survivors and investigations."
Police departments and transit authorities generally encourage reporting in an effort to ensure those who allegedly commit sex crimes - many of whom are likely repeat offenders - are known to authorities.
In the year after a campaign called "Report It to Stop It" launched, Transport for London said, "reports of unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport increased by 33 percent compared to the previous year and arrests increased by 36 percent."
New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has taken a similar position, urging reporting from victims and witnesses.
Some legal experts who think Uber should report its findings to law enforcement in the United States compared the company's role to that of a college administrator bound by Title IX, the civil rights law and accompanying set of federal university guidelines on sexual assault.
"It's not unlike what happens at the college level," said Andrew Miltenberg, a Title IX attorney at Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP who has represented students accused of sexual assault. "They both gather information, they both are willing to provide services, they both have a mechanism by which to make some determination to speak to witnesses, and yet they have ultimately no real authority to turn in someone or make a local complaint with law enforcement."
Many advocates for victims of sexual assault, however, argue victims should have full control over whether to report - a position Uber has used to argue it shouldn't refer individual cases to law enforcement for investigation unless the victim wants to file a complaint. For victims, the legal process can be a lengthy ordeal with little possibility for justice - less than 1 percent of incidences of rape resulted in a felony conviction, according to an analysis from RAINN, a nonprofit that provides victim support services. Victims pay the highest cost, advocates say, reliving their trauma over and over, in many cases feeling that they aren't fully believed or supported by the justice system.
Even though a study by researchers found that women who were encouraged to report by friends or family were the most likely to, Heidi M. Zinzow, a Clemson University associate professor of psychology who was among those who conducted the study, said the mere presence of a positive association between encouraging and reporting does not suggest entities should advise rape victims to go to the authorities. Zinzow said institutions should help people understand what options are available to them, whether it might involve a loss of anonymity, whether there were advocates who could help them and what the available resources might be.
"The focus should be on helping victims to make an informed decision about whether to file a report," she said. "As a society, of course we want the perpetrators to be reported so we can assign punitive consequences to them, but we also have to take into account the impact on the victims."
Uber's decision was made with the help of advocacy groups, including RAINN, who was contracted as an outside expert to provide services including specialized training for safety agents and institute a dedicated hotline for victims, according to Anderson. Uber did not say how much RAINN was paid.
But by not reporting the assaults, critics note, Uber may also help shield itself from legal liability.
Miltenberg, the Title IX attorney, said Uber has saddled itself with a "moral quagmire" by serving as a witness to potential crimes that it has no obligation to share with anyone else in real time. The problem could only become more prominent as Uber takes increasing measures, such as piloting audio recording for safety, that could capture evidence of potential crimes on a massive scale.
"How much of a responsibility does John Q. Public have when they see something that seems like a violation of the law, whether it's violence or not?" he asked.
Now that the information is out there, some advocacy groups said, it is incumbent on Uber to use it proactively.
"Taking steps to protect safety based on the information that they do have about individuals either as riders or as drivers is one obvious responsibility I would feel that they have," said Daniele Staple, executive director of the Las Vegas-based Rape Crisis Center, a group that provides support services for victims of rape and sexual assault, and encourages reporting to law enforcement on its website. "And then to . . . look at that data and try to create policies that use that data to make the experience safer."
At a local level, some community advocates are pressing Uber for information on the scale of the problem happening in their neighborhoods - without identifying details for victims.
Denise Rucker Krepp, a neighborhood commissioner in Washington and former chief counsel for a US Transportation Department agency under the Obama administration, said Uber should hand over localized data because it is a service operating in the public domain.
In a letter drafted by Krepp this month, 13 local neighborhood commissions wrote Uber's CEO asking how many DC drivers and riders were sexually assaulted. They also asked for information on how many financial settlements the company had entered into relating to riders' and drivers' reports of sexual assault in the District.
"If they're able to come up with numbers, then they know where the incidents are occurring," she said. "They have this information, they need to share it."
© The Washington Post 2019