Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Uber accused of illegally influencing effort to reduce background checks.

Uber is at the center lawsuit filed in a federal court in Austin, Texas, that alleges the company sent unsolicited automatic text messages to customers to drum up support for a ballot measure that would ease background checks for rideshare drivers.

The lawsuit filed in the US Court of the Western District claims that Uber violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) by “robo-texting thousands of unwanted text messages to the cellphones of thousands” of Austin customers, without their express consent. 

Under the TCPA, the lawsuit explains, it is unlawful for companies or individuals to call or send text messages using an “artificial or prerecorded voice” to cellular phones - with the exception of emergencies or the caller received the recipient’s consent. 

Both major transportation network companies - Uber and Lyft - have been vocal in their support for Proposition 1, a referendum that would eliminate the requirement for rideshare drivers to include fingerprinting in their background checks. But Uber has overstepped, according to recipients of the alleged text messages. 

Lawyers for Melissa Cubria, an Austin-area activist who filed the class-action suit, argue that Uber violated their customers’ privacy by using their phone numbers to send messages for political purposes. 

“[I]t is absurd to imagine that Uber paid individual, living persons to manually type and then manually send thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) of individual text messages in support of a political campaign underway,” the lawsuit says.

The court filing includes numerous screen captures of text messages allegedly sent to Uber customers in Austin that, it is claimed, show duplicate messages sent to various users, where the only difference is the sender’s name. When recipients respond with “STOP” or criticism of the tactics, that generated an apparent auto-response that did not acknowledge the previous message, it is alleged.

The text messages have “strong indicia of being generated not as part what would be an incredibly complex and tedious live, manually-dialed/manually texted political outreach effort,” the suit reads, “but rather as part of a robo-texting effort using auto-dial technology by Uber or third parties working at Uber’s direction to boost the prospects for passage of Prop 1.”

Images of text messages allegedly sent by Uber included in the lawsuit filing

Residents of the Texas capital will decide on whether or not to ride alongside ridesharing companies, or side with the city in a 7 May special election on Prop 1. In the push to win Austin’s favour, Uber and Lyft reportedly spent $8.1m (£5.6m) campaigning for the measure through the PAC Ridesharing Works for Austin, according to campaign finance reports released 29 April - although some estimate that figure to be higher. 

“Uber and Lyft’s $8.8m (£6.1) and growing in corporate spending as of Tuesday is a testament to how far these corporations are willing to go to rule Austin and overturn Austin’s public safety rules,” former Austin City Council member Laura Morrison said, adding that the amount of money spent on this campaign is “unprecedented”.

Ms Morrison is the spokesperson for the PAC that opposes Prop 1, Our City Our Safety Our Choice (OCOSOC), and called on the county district attorney to look into the practises of the companies, saying, "[W]e are calling for a broad investigation of Uber and Lyft’s actions to determine if they have stepped over the line from grossly inappropriate to illegality.” 

The OCOSOC site claims that should Prop 1 pass, it would set an ill precedent for corporations to do as they please. 

“If Uber succeeds with [Prop 1],” the website reads, “then other corporations may seek to overturn city rules on safe housing construction, worker safety, building limits in floodplains, clean water standards, neighborhood zoning, and a host of other public safety protections.”

Uber maintained that the company has acted lawfully, and accuses Prop 1 opponents of trying to influence the outcome of Saturday’s vote.

“We have taken great precaution to comply with applicable laws and believe the claims in this lawsuit are meritless,” the company said in a statement to KVUE

“The announcement of this action at an anti-Prop 1 press conference also reveals how it was designed to unduly influence the election.”

The Austin City Council put into place regulations that required rideshare drivers undergo fingerprint based background checks, identical to those required of taxi and limo drivers in the state. 

Ridesharing Works for Austin launched a petition drive and gathered more than 20,000 signatures, successfully calling for the special election to repeal the ordinance.

Both Uber and Lyft have threatened to leave the city if the measure fails. 

Representatives from Uber did not immediately respond to request for comment

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