Uber’s legal problems stemming from their development and deployment of an app known as “Greyball” have not been put behind them. The secret tool attached to the company’s network was, in many cases, a legitimate response to dirty tricks employed by their competitors and dangerous attacks on their drivers by criminals, but it allegedly did a fair bit more. Some of those functions seem to have skirted or crossed the line in terms of the law and now there is a federal investigation into these activities unfolding on the west coast. (Reuters)
The U.S. Department of Justice has begun a criminal investigation into Uber Technologies Inc’s use of a software tool that helped its drivers evade local transportation regulators, two sources familiar with the situation said.
Uber has acknowledged the software, known as “Greyball,” helped it identify and circumvent government officials who were trying to clamp down on Uber in areas where its service had not yet been approved, such as Portland, Oregon…
The criminal probe could become a significant problem facing the company that is already struggling with an array of recent business and legal issues.
An Uber spokesman and the Justice Department declined to comment. Uber lawyers said in letters to Portland authorities, which Portland made public in a report last week, that the Greyball technology was used ”exceedingly sparingly” in that city, before the service was approved there in 2015.
When we first talked about the discovery of the Greyball app back in March, I pointed out that there were a number of very real concerns that Uber was dealing with which gave them legitimate cause to use such a tool. Competitors were flooding the app with false ride requests, criminals were using it to lure cars into dangerous areas so they could rob them and there were the ever present attempts at suppression by municipal governments beholden to the taxi companies and their unions. But there were also disturbing reports (which Uber never clearly denied) that Greyball was being used to make pick-ups in areas where it was still prohibited by law and to weed out ride requests from people the app determined were likely to be law enforcement officers or politicians opposed to the service.
I’m a capitalist right down to the coldest recesses at the bottom of my dark little heart, so I can appreciate the cutthroat nature of the business world and the desire to attack any angle possible to gain an advantage. And that will sometimes involve doing some things which may look a bit dubious from the “fairness” side of the equation, provided they at least tiptoe along the correct side of the line in terms of the law. But if you’re going to go out and (allegedly) engage in activity which you clearly knew was illegal (if it’s obviously being done to evade a law) then you’ve lost the sympathy of many of us.
I’m really not saying all of this to try to help Uber. I’m doing it for me. I love Uber and refuse to call an old school taxi in any area where the service is available. I’d hate to see them wind up being shut down because of stupid, unforced errors involving tangling with the law. Better to beat them in the courts and state legislatures than engage in a high tech street war with the cops.