NEWS
12/05/2018 5:30 PM IST | Updated 13/05/2018 2:58 AM IST

How Uber Silences Women After Sexual Assaults

Just by using the app, you click away your rights. Now some victims are fighting for change.

Sophia started using Uber soon after it was founded in 2009. She doesn’t even remember agreeing to, much less reading, the fine print in the app’s terms of service. This would only become important in hindsight.

Last December, the 26-year-old San Francisco Bay Area native took her final Uber ride. It should’ve been a forgettable 12-minute trip from her company’s holiday party to her home, but it turned into something terrible.

When the car pulled up in front of her apartment building, Sophia’s driver asked if he could walk her inside. She said no. Then, just as she was keying in the code to open the front door, he snuck up behind her, pushing her into the foyer.

He grabbed her up into a bear hug and groped her. She got away, briefly, fleeing up the stairs to her apartment. He followed. In front of her apartment door, he again squeezed her tightly, putting his hand up her dress. Luckily, she made it inside her apartment and locked him out.

Later, after reporting her assault to the police, Sophia learned that her driver was a registered sex offender. How could Uber have allowed this man to drive for the company? she wondered.

Sophia, who does not want to publicly reveal her last name, is one of nine women suing Uber for fraud, misleading advertising about its level of safety, and assault, battery and rape. The women are demanding that the ride-sharing company truly reckon with what they say is a widespread sexual assault issue.

The details of Sophia’s attack are documented in the lawsuit, where she is identified as Jane Doe #3. The case was filed in 2017 and updated in March when Sophia and six other women joined the suit.

While a few of the other women suing have shared their stories publicly, Sophia is only now coming forward to HuffPost to share her experiences.

Uber’s terms of service, which, let’s admit, most people don’t read, require all customers to settle disputes ― even over sexual assault and rape ― in private arbitration.

The women want Uber to fix what they see as its “flawed” background check system, the lawsuit says. Because the system is designed to quickly approve drivers, Uber skips steps that would screen out sex offenders like the one who assaulted Sophia, according to the suit. Though Uber has recently announced changes to its system, these women say they’re insufficient.

The women say the only way they can force Uber to improve its standards is if they bring their case into a public courtroom ― and this highlights a second, possibly even larger issue with Uber: When users download the app, they unwittingly click away their right to file a lawsuit against the company.

Uber’s terms of service, which, let’s admit, most people don’t read, require all customers to settle disputes ― even over sexual assault and rape ― in arbitration. These are private courtrooms, outside the public justice system, that notoriously favor big companies.

Uber has already filed a motion in court arguing that these women have no right to make their case in a public courtroom. That spurred action from the nine women and a few others, who penned an open letter to the company’s board of directors urging Uber to reconsider.

“Secret arbitration takes away a woman’s right to a trial by a jury of her peers and provides a dark alley for Uber to hide from the justice system, the media and public scrutiny,” the women wrote.

Uber defended its use of arbitration in a statement in March when the case expanded, but has since changed its tune somewhat. During a Twitter exchange with Susan Fowler, a former Uber employee who famously shared her story of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he would look at the issue.

“Sexual assault has no place anywhere and we are committed to doing our part to help end this violence,” the company told HuffPost in a statement. “As we prioritize safety at Uber, we are taking a hard look at these important issues.”

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted that Uber would take a closer look at its arbitration policy but has to "take all of our constituents into consideration."

In arbitration, each woman would have to fight her case alone, on an individual level. The best outcome would be, maybe, a cash settlement. Often, such settlements are kept private through nondisclosure agreements, so other assault victims wouldn’t learn about women who’ve gone through similar experiences. The chances that the company would be forced to re-examine the way it does business are nil.

Sophia told HuffPost she’s not doing this for money, but to effect change. “The only thing I can really do is help others,” she said.I think it’s stronger to join others so we can help others not have this happen to them.”

Publicly embarrassed by the letter ― with Khosrowshahi getting called out on Twitter ― the company asked for more time from the court to consider the women’s plea. Uber now has a court-sanctioned deadline of May 17 to formally decide if its sexual assault issues get a public airing out.

At a time when women are increasingly unwilling to stay silent about sexual abuse, the idea that a company can keep its problems private through arbitration has become harder to defend.

There are bills at both the federal and state level to stop companies from forcing women into arbitration in sexual harassment and assault cases. Microsoft announced earlier this year that it would no longer force harassment cases filed by its employees into arbitration. Orrick, a major law firm, made a similar announcement in March.

At a time when women are increasingly unwilling to stay silent about sexual abuse, the idea that a company can keep its problems private through arbitration has become harder to defend.

Uber has said it has no issue with these women telling their stories in public. But news stories alone can’t always bring justice or closure to victims. There’s a particular power in letting rape survivors bring their stories into a public courtroom ― and to have other women join them and say “me too.”

Anyone who watched the victims of Larry Nassar confront their disgraced abuser in a Michigan courtroom in January knows this. We saw the power of a public trial again in the Bill Cosby case.

“Having public disclosure in a courtroom about what happened, that’s part of the public record. There’s a real power in that,” said Hannah Brenner, a professor at California Western School of Law who researches the intersection of law and gender, focusing specifically on sexual assault, institutions and disparate power dynamics.

That these women have banded together is particularly powerful. “There’s a tendency for us to dismiss sexual violence as a one-off,” Brenner said. Collectively, these women are a force more difficult to ignore.

How Bad Is Uber’s Sexual Assault Problem?

Citing hundreds of media reports about Uber-related sexual assault, the women suing the company say it has a systemic problem on its hands.

Jeanne Christensen, the lawyer representing the nine women, has been representing rape and assault victims in cases against Uber since at least 2014. She’s negotiated privately with Uber, case by case, but said that last year she grew fed up with the one-off system and became determined to push the company to do more.

“The stories are always the same,” she told HuffPost. Christensen’s clients typically said they hailed an Uber ride after a night of drinking, and that their driver then assaulted and, in some cases, raped them. She couldn’t go into more detail, citing confidentiality.

Many of her clients are living in fear, she said, afraid their attacker will come after them again. “It’s very common for clients to move apartments. They break leases. That’s how frightened they are,” she said. “They get new phones, change their numbers.”

Yet it’s hard to know the real scope of Uber’s sexual assault problems. The company does not release information about reported incidents, police departments don’t track rape data that way ― and sadly, most women do not report sexual assault to anyone at all.

The company said it is looking at ways to better track assaults.

While rapes and assaults that take place in Uber cars do get a lot of media attention, they are just a small percentage of sexual assaults in the U.S.

Strangers aren’t the biggest danger when it comes to rape.

“While the Uber assaults are scary, women are still most at risk of being assaulted by someone they know,” said Melissa Morabito, a professor at the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, Center for Women & Work, at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

What Is Uber Doing About Background Checks?

Earlier this spring, Uber announced a host of changes meant to strengthen its background check process for drivers, as well as several new safety features. And Khosrowshahi has said publicly that safety is his No. 1 priority.

The Uber app will now be better integrated with 911, making it easier for emergency services to find you on the road. The company said it would re-run background checks on all drivers each year to make sure no new incidents have cropped up ― something it did inconsistently in the past. Uber also said it would begin using a technology that would alert them when Uber drivers were arrested in real time.

The company “offers features that ensure every trip is GPS tracked, 24/7 response from our safety team, and the ability to share your trip with loved ones in real time, and we’re committed to doing more,” it said in a statement.

Uber also announced it was bringing on former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson as chairman of Uber’s safety advisory board.

But Christensen says these moves are not enough. Uber’s checking process isn’t much different than the credit check you’d have to go through if you were trying to rent an apartment, she told HuffPost. The check only goes back seven years, according to the women’s lawsuit. (Uber says that its checks can extend beyond that period depending on the database the company is searching.)

The company needs to run driver’s fingerprints through the FBI and Department of Justice’s databases, the suit says. 

Uber says that the fingerprint system is not a panacea and comes with its own set of flaws. There are concerns, for example, that some people ― who haven’t been convicted or who’ve had their charges dismissed ― get inaccurately labeled as criminals. The company cites data that show hundreds of thousands of Americans can’t get jobs because of flaws and inaccuracies in the system.

Uber argues that “While no background check is perfect, our process is robust, fair and relevant to the work at hand.”

“The predominance of regulators believe that our screening processes are appropriate,” Khosrowshahi told The Washington Post recently. “I don’t think fingerprints would substantially change what happens with human behavior. … The predators in life look for dark corners. Our job is to tell the world that Uber has its lights on.”

‘You’re In A Constant State Of Panic’

“Sexual assault is about a predator stealing a part of you that you will never get back. I fight unceasingly against the shame, the loss of feeling safe, and the debilitating anxiety,” Sophia wrote in a statement she shared with HuffPost (read it in full below). “If Uber had done their due diligence, my devastation could have been avoided.”

For now, Sophia is trying to find another place to live. She will only stay the night at home if her roommates are around, she said. She fears that the Uber driver who assaulted her might come look for her again.

Sophia fought her attacker off that December night in a struggle that lasted minutes, but that she said felt infinite. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a car accident where time is moving extremely slow. You’re trying to make the best decisions you possibly can, but if you’re in the state too long, your brain can’t handle it,” Sophia told HuffPost. “You’re in a constant state of panic. It’s like going in and out of consciousness.”

She said she punched the Uber driver in the stomach and ran into her apartment, locking the door and windows.

The morning after the attack, she opened her Uber app and reported the incident.

“I think I was still in shock. I didn’t think about the right way to do this,” Sophia said. She figured since she had a problem with the service, she should start there. “It seemed like the right move. Very quickly I realized it was not the right move.”

Sexual assault is about a predator stealing a part of you that you will never get back. Sophia, 26

A customer service rep called Sophia back and she told the woman what happened.

“She said she’d reimburse me for the ride and that they take this seriously and she’d follow up again soon. It was a very short call,” Sophia said, estimating that the conversation probably took less than five minutes. The representative wasn’t particularly empathetic. Sophia compared her demeanor to that of a barista taking your coffee order.

“My $17 back was just not what I was going for. It didn’t make me feel safer; that was the main thing,” she said. “I didn’t feel any safer, and it was a pointless call.”

Sophia walked to her local police department after that. The cops talked to her for hours, she said.

Uber eventually got back to her and told her that her driver was no longer working for the company and that he’d been warned by the police not to come near her. “I don’t know what happened to him,” she said.

The company didn’t respond to specific questions about Sophia’s allegations.

Sophia doesn’t use the Uber app anymore, but said that living in San Francisco, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the service every day. “Every time I have a noxious reaction,” she said, adding that she now feels like she had blinders on when it came to using the app.

She figured Uber was a strong business and had naturally figured this safety thing out, she said.

“I got a little bit fooled by that. I didn’t think enough through about what they were doing. I don’t think they did either.” 

Read Sophia’s full statement below.

Sexual Assault is about a predator stealing a part of you that you will never get back. There is no settlement amount or number of criminal convictions that can replace what has forever been lost. To me, this is the most painful aspect of being a sexual assault survivor. I’ve been given a life-sentence of battling the excruciating psychological effects of being violated; I fight unceasingly against the shame, the loss of feeling safe, and the debilitating anxiety. While I am strong and resilient, while I do not want to victimize myself, I want to be transparent and honest about the reality of surviving trauma, as I do not know how else to protect others.

If Uber had done their due diligence, my devastation could have been avoided. They hired a man whose personal information and picture are the exact match of a registered sex offender; the same man I accurately identified in a photo-lineup. This is the Uber driver who drove me home after a work event, followed me into my apartment building, and assaulted me.  

Uber is neglecting to acknowledge the severity and frequency of the sexual assault crimes being committed by asking for arbitration. By the same token, Uber is missing my purpose, and that of many other women, in joining this class-action. This is not for me, this is for every person reading this; for anyone who wants to strive for a world that does not turn a blind eye to acts of sexual violence. It’s too late for me, I am striving for it to not be too late for you.

As for Uber, I’d appreciate it if you stopped saying that “you take these allegations very seriously”. While the intention may be genuine, the lack of action proves otherwise. According to Uber’s website, there are approximately 15 million Uber rides daily and 75 million monthly users. For each day that you continue to put an incredible number of passengers at risk, for each day that you seek profit over safety, for each day that you try to silence women—I will not be able to conceive how that statement could possibly be true.

This story has been updated to include more information from Uber on how far back its driver background checks extend.

Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.