Another day, another story about Uber lighting up the news cycle. This time the media is all aflutter over revelations reported first in the New York Times that the company developed a “secret application” to thwart law enforcement efforts. Known as “Greyball” inside the organization, the app was apparently designed to ignore or cancel ride requests coming from sketchy sources. Some of these may have been calls from high crime areas where drivers could be subject to attacks or competitors seeking to tie up cars and cut into the company’s market share. But the “users” attracting the most interest from journalists were the ones who may have been involved in law enforcement. (Reuters)

Ride services company Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL] for years has used a secret tool to avoid authorities in markets where its service faced resistance by law enforcement or was banned, the company confirmed on Friday.

The New York Times first reported the existence of the program, called Greyball, which uses data from the Uber app and other methods to identify and circumvent officials who aimed to ticket or apprehend drivers in cities that opposed its operations.

Rides hailed from a location near a city enforcement agency suspected of launching a sting to trap Uber drivers could be ignored or canceled, for instance, the Times report said.

The tool allowed Uber to show images of “ghost” Uber cars on the app or show that no cars were available, according to the newspaper, in order to deceive authorities. Officials in certain cities without a legal framework for ride services have aimed to ticket, tow and impound the cars.

It’s certainly possible, at least according to these reports, that the Greyball app may have been illegally used to engage in services in locations where the company was not legally allowed to operate. If that’s the case, then Uber will obviously need to be held to account. But the number of places where the ridesharing service is banned from operating by law is thankfully few and growing less by the month. In far too many other locales, Uber ran into a very unofficial “ban” which was abetted by local law enforcement even though there was no clear directive under legislative statute. Let’s take another look at one paragraph from the media coverage where they fully admit that this was going on. (Emphasis added)

The tool allowed Uber to show images of “ghost” Uber cars on the app or show that no cars were available, according to the newspaper, in order to deceive authorities. Officials in certain cities without a legal framework for ride services have aimed to ticket, tow and impound the cars.

Aimed to ticket, tow and impound the cars” in areas “without a legal framework for ride services.” How in the world does anyone managed to type and publish a sentence like that without it being the lead for the story? We’re talking about police officers and city officials “enforcing laws” which don’t exist. You could’ve taken a hint from the opening paragraph of the Reuters article wherein they mention places “where its service faced resistance by law enforcement.” It has never been the job of law enforcement to “resist” anything unless it’s something which is prohibited under law.

We’ve heard these accusations before from too many people to write this off as a few isolated incidents. Uber drivers have faced harassment not only from competitors but from police and city officials who have spent far too long snuggling comfortably in the pockets of cab companies and their unions. If they couldn’t get a law on the books to ban services such as Uber and Lyft they would find ways to stifle the services in favor of the traditional cab companies (with their lucrative medallion programs) which have long funded too many political campaigns.

There may be isolated locations where Uber utilized the Greyball program to evade or even break the law. If so, they will be held to task for those actions. But where is the investigation of the people, sometimes embedded within state and municipal governments, who were actively working to thwart the operation of the business when it was not specifically prohibited by law? Isn’t that the real story here?

I can’t in good conscience conclude this article without something of a disclaimer. I fully realize that I regularly engage in a bit of hypocrisy when it comes to the intersection of these ridesharing services and social or political issues. I love Uber and I make no secret of that. Some conservative friends, along with liberals, have voiced objections to how the company operates. But as others before me have said, Uber could spend their profits erecting a statue in honor of Chez Guevera on the National Mall and I would still use them before hailing a cab anyplace where the service is available.