Could Uber's New Policy For Addressing Sexual Assault Claims Change The Entire Industry?

It's a big step forward that might have an impact on companies across the country.

A new Uber policy will give alleged victims of sexual harassment and assault the chance to chose the venue in which they want their claims heard, and could change the way private companies handle similar allegations across the country.

Uber announced the policy change this month, saying it will no longer force riders who make claims of assault or harassment into private arbitration, a common practice that has come under intense scrutiny across the United States. Like many companies, Uber's terms of service included a clause that waives a rider's constitutional right to challenge Uber in court, instead bringing them before a third-party arbitrator that the company pays. 

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"The specific thing that's changing is that going forward our new policy allows all riders, drivers and employees, and all victims of sexual assault and harassment, to choose the venue of their individual case," Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Uber, told A Plus.

As reported by Recode, fellow ride-sharing service Lyft made a similar change in the wake of Uber's announcement.

New York, US - August 23, 2015. Uber car service on the streets of New York at Night. With selective focus on Uber logo. Shutterstock / MikeDotta

In a blog post on Uber's website, chief legal officer Tony West announced the updated terms. The post explained that Uber will also stop forcing survivors into confidentiality agreements, another common practice, and will now allow the victim to decide whether to divulge the details of what happened. The company is also conducting a safety transparency report that will highlight data on sexual assaults and other incidents that occur on the Uber platform.

"This was a decision we struggled to make, in part because data on safety and sexual assaults is sparse and inconsistent," West wrote about the transparency and data commitment. "In fact, there is no data to reliably or accurately compare reports against Uber drivers versus taxi drivers or limo drivers, or Uber versus buses, subways, airplanes or trains.  And when it comes to categorizing this data for public release, no uniform industry standard for reporting exists today."

Last week, CNN published a report claiming at least 103 Uber drivers have been accused of sexual assault or abusing riders in the last four years.  Nine members of Congress consequently sent a letter to Uber's CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and the leaders of several other ride-sharing apps requesting details about how they handle allegations of assault and harassment. 

Anderson said she expects that their internal report will uncover more than the 103 cases cited by CNN because so many sexual harassments and assault cases go unreported.  She noted that no other ride-sharing companies have committed to similar reporting in the past. The company has consulted with experts from the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the National Network to End Domestic Violence and Time's Up Legal Defense Fund on how to build out its database, and track and define sexual harassment and assault. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 14, 2017 : Uber application on Samsung S7. Uber Technologies Inc. is an American technology company headquartered in San Francisco, California, United States.  Shutterstock / dennizn

Right now, if a sexual assault is reported to Uber, it's the company's policy to immediately block the alleged perpetrator from the application and begin an investigation. Uber has a team of former law enforcement officers in place to handle such allegations, many of whom assist police 24/7 when reports come in through the app. The company is also investing in new technology that will allow riders to share live trip information with friends and family, as well as an "emergency button" that can automatically send the car's location to a 911 center. 

Dr. Dora Kingsley Vertenten, a professor at the Price School of Public Policy at University of Southern California, said she was "skeptical" of Uber's announcement because it is not a blanket policy that applies to other kinds of litigation. Instead, she felt the company might be leveraging the #MeToo movement  to make a policy change that helps its image.

"The question remains twofold: one, what's going to be defined as harassment or sexual? Two, it's not even clear Uber could enforce victims to stay in arbitration," Vertenten told A Plus. "It's very unclear if this is a PR stunt or actual policy change."

Experts agree the #MeToo moment has had a positive impact in helping push private companies to change how they do business. Larry Parnell, associate professor and director of the strategic public relations program at George Washington University, said the public is making it an expectation that companies respond and change their behavior when confronted with an allegation.  

"I always tell my students, 'If something goes wrong, people want to know what happened, whose fault is it, and what are you going to do to make sure it doesn't happen again?" Parnell told A Plus. "Right now, that emphasis is on, 'What are you going to do to make sure it doesn't happen again?' That's the action part people are expecting."

Asked whether the policy change struck him as a public relations move, Parnell said he felt like it was a genuine positive step.

"It's definitely a movement in the right direction," he told A Plus. "I think Uber is legitimately trying to turn itself around. They are spending a lot of time and effort in this cultural change and rebranding effort. I think thats legitimate and I don't think it's a PR move."

Anderson and West both expressed hope that other companies across the country follow Uber and Lyft's lead.

"Our message to the world is that we need to turn the lights on," West wrote. "It starts with improving our product and policies, but it requires so much more, and we're in it for the long haul. Together, we can make meaningful progress towards ending sexual violence. Our commitment to you is that when we say we stand for safety, we mean it."

Correction: a previous version of this article identified Larry Parnell as a professor at Georgetown University. He is a professor at George Washington University.

Cover photo: Shutterstock / structuresxx

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