Uber back in spotlight for deceiving public authorities
by Mike Beggs
It has been standard practice for Uber to dance around taxicab regulations in cities the world over, while building up its $70-billion company.
But who would have thought this Silicon Valley upstart had a formalized strategy for circumventing licensing enforcement?
This all came to light in a March 3 article in The New York Times entitled, “How Uber Deceives the Authorities Worldwide.”
Quoting four Uber employees in anonymity, the story reveals how Uber has employed a tool known as “Greyball” to identify and dodge licensing officers attempting to crack down on its Uber X operators. They say this technology was developed by Uber to root out those thought to be using, or targeting its service improperly.
Reportedly, Greyball was part of a broader Uber program called VTOS (Violation of Terms Of Service), which began in 2014 and is still in use.
Among other tactics, Uber would create a “geofence” around government offices and monitor the movement of licensing officials. Or they would create a fake app and send out “ghost cars” on it, to confuse officers.
In 2014, a Portland licensing inspector filmed Greyball in action, when he tried to hail a car downtown during a sting operation. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he was “very concerned that Uber may have purposefully worked to subvert the efforts of licensing officials protecting the public.
Uber has reportedly since utilized Greyball in Boston and Las Vegas, among other cities.
This program only underscores the lengths Uber will go to to seize a market. Numerous North American municipalities have banned Uber X, and ticketed Uber X drivers, only to have Uber pick up the cost of these fines.
“They’re just despicable,” alleges Toronto plate-holder Andy Reti. “But what do you expect from the idiot politicians we have in Toronto (who allowed this to happen?)”
When asked if this could account for Toronto’s lack of success in clamping down on Uber before it was brought into the bylaw, he snaps, “They had no intention of catching Uber.”
“What happened to the operation where they actually charged 30 Uber drivers?” he asks. “What happened to that, one and a half years later?”
While the use of Greyball is clearly devious, veteran Hamilton owner/operator Hans Wienhold deems it “incredible” technology, nonetheless.
“They’re not stupid,” he says. “My (real) ire is against the politicians for being such utter wimps (in not standing up to Uber).”
Independent Toronto Taxi Inc. president Mike Tranquada was not surprised by the Times’ report, given the continuing question marks surrounding the insurance and safety of Uber X drivers and vehicles.
“To most people, Uber is not a reputable company,” he alleges. “That’s the way they operate. More and more, I find the older people aren’t taking Uber -- it’s the nouveau riche, and the millennials.”
He cites the example of an Uber X driver who was suddenly cut off, after three months with the service (about the average period most Uber partners last).
“(The driver said) after three months your Uber app has (something) like a cloud over it, and you don’t get any more calls,” he relates.
The news of Greyball might lend some credence to a summer of 2016 report from Mississauga Licensing officials claiming their attempts to conduct stings on Uber were somehow being digitally thwarted.
“There’s no question they wanted to go after Uber,” says long-time owner Peter Pellier. “They tried fishing expeditions and were unsuccessful. And now we know why.”
He’s hoping that Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie will now reconsider her pro-Uber stance, with the City soon to embark on a one-year pilot project for Uber X. In discussions about the parameters of the pilot, Uber Canada public policy manager Chris Schafer pushed for several concessions, including an unlimited supply of Uber X cars, and a 10-year age limit on these vehicles.
At meetings last year, Crombie observed that several Ontario cities have already legalized Uber X service, and that Mississauga should strongly consider following suit.
“(But) the Mayor is the Mayor, and the bylaw is the by-law,” Pellier comments. “I’m hoping that Mayor Crombie sits back and does a little bit of thinking. It’s one thing to back a company that does a creative disturbance. It’s quite another to support a company engaging in criminal activity. When you circumvent enforcement, isn’t that obstruction of justice?