Technology feels faceless. Interfaces are slick and functional – indeed, the objective of their design is to strip away any residual sense of humanity. And despite this sterility, for the most part, we like the anonymity. It is convenient; it liberates us from the clumsiness of human error.
However, anonymity also disempowers us. It means that when something goes wrong, you suddenly find that you are dealing with a corporation, rather than a person. And corporations don’t much care for people. The lighter side of this parable means sending pointless emails into the void when your Deliveroo driver forgets your side of fries; at its darkest, it means that your Uber driver might be allowed to continue working, even if you accuse him of sexual assault.
It is not an abstract example; this weekend, The Sunday Times reported that Uber has been accused by the Metropolitan police, which looks after the Greater London area, of failing to report sexual assaults by its drivers and, moreover, keeping those drivers accused on its books regardless. Inspector Neil Billany of the Met’s Taxi and Private Hire Team argued that Uber is being selective, reporting “less serious matters” that would be “less damaging to [its] reputation”. Notably, the company is currently in line for a licence review in London, the biggest city in its European market.
Uber is in a position of responsibility – and when a company fails you, you complain and expect it to atone. Duly, customers lodged complaints with Uber after specific incidents, assuming it would pass those reports on to the police. But Billany says that Uber withheld information, including at least six sexual assaults, two public order offences and an assault. In one instance, a driver who was not reported to the police was later able to assault a second woman in a “more serious” attack. “Had Uber notified police after the first offence, it would be right to assume that the second would have been prevented,” Inspector Billany wrote. Uber would pass on complaints to Transport for London (TfL) instead of directly to the police – meaning that the Met learnt about the crimes too late to prosecute.
Uber has said that the letter “does [not] reflect the good working relationship we have with the police” and continues, “we advise people to report serious incidents to the police and support any subsequent investigations, but respect the rights of individuals to decide whether or not to make such reports”. The statement is evasive – there is a suggestion, albeit subtle, of victim-blaming.
One friend got in an Uber driven by a man who started talking about his wife – specifically, that he preferred his wife to keep her mouth shut as 'it wasn’t his favourite hole'
And the rot is widespread. Uber currently operates in 633 cities – including 20 British ones – and there are stories from across the world. Earlier this month, an Uber driver in Cape Town allegedly attacked a 26-year-old woman after dropping her off at her house. Last week, a 22-year-old woman in Brisbane alleged that she had been attacked by her driver. There have been sexual assaults reported in American cities including Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Oklahoma, Los Angeles and Orlando. In 2014, in one of the highest-profile sexual-assault cases levelled against the company, an Indian woman was raped in Delhi – leading to a temporary ban on the service in the city. In June this year, she sued the company, alleging that executives had “violated her a second time” when they obtained her medical records and used the data to undermine her credibility.
And, while allegations of sexual assault are urgent and serious, others report a more nebulous, cultural problem with Uber. Many women have examples of incidents that hover around a line, but which don’t necessarily cross them. One friend got in an Uber driven by a man who started talking about his wife – specifically, that he preferred his wife to keep her mouth shut as “it wasn’t his favourite hole”. Another was messaged, persistently, by hers for days afterwards. Another friend was propositioned by a man in an Uber Pool, while the driver remained mute. She was drunk and vulnerable, and to escape him decided to get out of the cab. She had to pay a cancellation fee.
Moreover, it is likely not a coincidence that passenger experiences rhyme with anecdotes about the company’s corporate culture. In June, a board member resigned after making a sexist comment in a meeting and, in February, a former employee published a blog post maintaining sexual harassment and discrimination was endemic in the company. Pernicious attitudes travel from the top level down.
Of course, these stories are not representative of every Uber driver. But the allegations and anecdotes speak of a certain culture – one with an extraordinary disregard for women’s safety or comfort, a venal belief in the company over the customer. Uber’s failure to pass on allegations of sexual assault is wilfully neglectful – and allows, as it did in at least one case, an offender to repeat again. When there is no punishment for a crime, criminals acquire power and people – in this case, women – lose theirs.