Uber and Passenger Safety: Human Rights Aren’t an Optional App for Cab Rides

Commentary, 16 February 2015

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

A woman in India recently sued Uber, the Internet-based ride-hailing service operating out of California, in a US court, seeking unspecified damages. The woman alleges a driver registered with Uber in India raped her and in her American suit she alleges negligence on Uber’s part.

She experienced “horrific and brutal rape” in December because of the taxi app company’s “inadequate and disingenuous commitment to safety,” according to her complaint filed in California.

She had immediately reported the crime in India, and the local police arrested the driver in Mathura, a city 160 km from Delhi a few days after the incident.

There have been other complaints of sexual harassment against drivers on Uber’s register in South Africa, Chicago and Boston. In another federal lawsuit, also filed in the United States around the same time, the complaint alleges that Uber does not train drivers, offers no oversight, nor does it supervise them, and does not even meet them in person. Uber, the complaint continues, says it conducts ‘industry-leading’ background checks on drivers, although those checks are outsourced to a third party.

Separately, taxi drivers’ unions in a number of cities around the world have claimed Uber was unsafe and should not be allowed to offer its services. (Similar concerns were raised about mini-cabs in London, and a concerted effort to improve checks and safety standards by mini-cab operating companies and the Metropolitan Police followed).

In India, immediately after the incident, Uber promptly expressed sympathy and wrote to the woman and cooperated with the investigations. The Delhi police are examining the company’s legal liabilities. Some Indian cities have banned Uber (or are considering a ban) and other web-based taxi services.

Uber drivers have protested that their livelihoods are affected. But authorities have cited regulatory violations, stating that Uber had not acquired proper authorization before offering cab-hailing services. In the Delhi case, reports suggest there were previous complaints against the driver but he had nonetheless managed to procure a certificate from the police, which did not mention any criminal record. That document was reportedly forged.

These and other examples point to inadequate due diligence – certainly on the state’s part, but the company also bears responsibility. To be clear, the company does not employ Yadav, since it does not hire drivers. Uber calls itself a market aggregator, by creating a space on the Internet where those seeking rides and those offering rides can interact. But the company sets fares (which vary depending on demand) and collects payments from users and deposits the agreed amount into drivers’ accounts. Since the incident, Uber has since introduced an app in India that acts as a “panic button,” letting its customers notify the police in an emergency, and share location details with up to five people. It also says it has instituted greater scrutiny of potential drivers.

This tangled narrative raises several important questions from the perspective of business responsibility for human rights.

  • Customer safety is paramount: Whether or not Uber directly employs its cab drivers, it has the responsibility to respect the human rights of those who use its services. This means passengers. While Uber may have innovated an efficient economic model that keeps costs low, and which offers a valuable service to customers where public transport is unreliable and taxis aren’t easily available, it cannot simply say its role is limited to introducing the seller (the driver) and the buyer (the passenger). If during the journey the passenger is harmed, Uber cannot simply say it is for the authorities to prosecute. Just as oil companies cannot disengage themselves from their sub-contractors such as security providers, Uber cannot separate itself from its drivers when things go wrong.

  • Due diligence is essential: It is critical for Uber to undertake rigorous due diligence of the drivers it signs on. Again, drawing from the example of security forces, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights require extractive industries to scrutinize the prior record of security forces, state or private, who are being deployed to guard company facilities. To be sure, in the Indian case Uber appears to have relied on the driver’s apparently clean police record (which may have been forged), and it is reasonable to ask if Uber should conduct enhanced due diligence of every potential driver, when the drivers have a clean record. And if so, what steps should it take, if it discovers information critical about such drivers. Should the company disregard the local police or government records and develop its own more rigorous system? Is it fair to view every potential driver as a potential criminal? An online petition calls upon Uber to undertake a background check going back seven years for each driver.

  • Drivers’ rights matter: Such enhanced due diligence means the company has to institute a mechanism to verify the driver’s credentials that may go above and beyond routine checks and may eve be intrusive, and in some jurisdictions, violate the driver’s privacy rights.

  • Passenger privacy is critical: Like all well-intentioned initiatives developed in response to a crisis, the “panic button” app can have unintended consequences. First, it is patronizing. It also violates the passenger’s privacy. India is a tradition-bound, conservative society, where dominating parents or male relatives could insist that a woman program her smartphone so that they can monitor her movements. In the case of women living alone in a big city like Delhi, where their families are in other parts of the country, it could mean that she has no choice but to name other relatives or her employer as among the people able to monitor her journeys. This denies the woman her agency, and intrudes in her personal life.

  • Data custody is crucial: The creation of such an app raises a deeper question about data – who owns it, and how long is it kept on record, and who has access to the data? The customer? The company? The authorities? The driver? The five named individuals? There are safety, security and privacy concerns in each case. This raises the broader question of how much companies know about people, and what they do with the data.

Uber and similar companies provide a useful service. It is a new economy corporation, that has operated so far in part by exploiting loopholes where regulations don’t exist or are silent, by anticipating a market need, because old rules do not apply and new regulations have not been developed which can catch up with the company’s innovations. Uber’s service makes many customers’ lives more convenient and more efficient.

But there are consequences. And when things do go wrong, the company cannot defend itself saying it is a mere market aggregator, and that all it does is to bring buyers and sellers together. Markets do bring buyers and sellers together, but when one party is harmed, regulators step in to protect the vulnerable or the victim – it happens in the real world, through monopoly commissions, consumer safety councils, watchdogs and ombudsmen, product safety standards, other regulators, and courts.

Uber’s India experience is a reminder that the human rights of passengers must be paramount. Companies like Uber should assess and understand their human rights impacts, develop policies and implement strong due diligence measures to mitigate and eliminate potential harm to human rights. And there should be zero tolerance for grave crimes. If it means Uber has to redesign its business model, so be it.

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