Uber has 30 days to pay a $59 million fine to California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for failing to answer the regulator’s questions about a damning safety report released by the company in December 2019. If Uber doesn’t pay up and answer the outstanding questions, CPUC could suspend the company’s license to operate in the state, an administrative law judge ruled on Monday.
It’s the latest development in Uber’s long history of trouble with violence and assault between its drivers and passengers — trouble that competitor Lyft shares, too. News of the fine was first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle.
The report, which Uber itself called “jarring” at the time, detailed thousands of sexual assaults in the US that happened in 2017 and 2018 during trips taken with the company’s ride-hailing platform. While the 84-page report included a fair amount of data in aggregate, CPUC wanted to know more shortly after it was released — especially because Uber admitted in the fine print that the report did not “assess or take any position on whether any of the reported incidents actually occurred.”
The CPUC has regulatory authority over transportation companies in the state and regularly investigates complaints against them. So it asked Uber a handful of questions about who authored the report, and also asked Uber for specific details on each incident of assault.
Uber never answered the questions, claiming that further disclosure would present a privacy risk for both the assault survivors as well as its employees. In January 2020, a judge denied the company’s request to avoid answering, saying Uber could file the answers under seal in order to protect confidentiality. Uber continued to fight answering the CPUC’s questions throughout the year until up Monday’s ruling, though.
In the ruling, the judge described those efforts as little more than “specious legal roadblocks” meant to “frustrate the Commission’s ability to gather information” about whether Uber is operating safely. They did, however, say that Uber can use “a code or some other signifier rather than a victim’s name” when it eventually answers the CPUC’s questions. The judge arrived at the $59 million figure by levying a $7,500 fine for every specific time that Uber refused to answer each question during the process.
“Uber is a billion-dollar business that can easily afford to pay … [e]ven during a pandemic where ridership has undoubtedly declined,” the judge wrote.
The CPUC has been “insistent in its demands that we release the full names and contact information of sexual assault survivors without their consent,” Uber said in a statement to The Verge. “We opposed this shocking violation of privacy, alongside many victims’ rights advocates. Now, a year later, the CPUC has changed its tune: we can provide anonymized information—yet we are also subject to a $59 million fine for not complying with the very order the CPUC has fundamentally altered.”
Uber further said these “punitive and confusing actions will do nothing to improve public safety and will only create a chilling effect as other companies consider releasing their own reports. Transparency should be encouraged, not punished.”