Commissioner Dan Saltzman wants to issue a subpoena to get a look at Uber’s “playbook” for dodging regulators using software.
The city sought the playbook, and the software itself, during a month-long investigation of the practice. Uber failed to turn them over by the city’s deadline, but Saltzman, who oversaw the investigation, believes the city can compel the company with the subpoena.
If the rest of the city council agrees, it would put Uber in the company of Portland General Electric during its time as an Enron subsidiary. The Portland company was the last target of a city council subpoena in 2006, while it was entangled in its parent’s bankruptcy.
Portland launched its investigation after The New York Times reported in March that Uber had used software, internally called “Greyball,” to identify and reject hails from city code enforcers at a time when the service was operating illegally in Portland.
A video by The Oregonian/OregonLive from the time showed code officers’ ride requests repeatedly canceled, thwarting their attempts to fine the company and its drivers
While Uber officials admitted to using Greyball during a two-week period in 2014, it denied using the software since then, and the city found no evidence to the contrary.
Even so, Saltzman said the city needs access to the company’s playbook and software to complete its investigation.
“I believe we need this information to continue to carry out or regulative function,” Saltzman said. “In my opinion, we need the whole playbook to be sure nothing is being held back from us.”
The city also included Uber’s main competitor, Lyft, in the investigation, but there’s been no allegation or evidence of similar practices by that company.
After two weeks dodging city regulators in 2014, Uber suspended its premature launch as the city ironed out a pilot program that would allow for its business model. It launched with the city’s blessing in 2015 and, along with competitor Lyft, quickly came to dominate the city’s ride market.
An Uber spokesman previously told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the company has not used the Greyball program in Portland since then. The company made similar assurances to the city, according to the investigation report.
Saltzman said there is little the city can do retroactively about Uber’s use of Greyball in 2014. The city didn’t have rules in place, he said, and the company already paid a $67,000 fine for operating illegally.
“If I could issue a fine I thought would stand up, I would,” Saltzman said. “I’m upset by what they did. My interest now is in making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
While Uber has denied using Greyball in Portland, revelations continue around the lengths it has taken to avoid scrutiny.
The Times later reported that, in early 2015, the company was caught tracking iPhone users even after they uninstalled the Uber app, violating Apple’s privacy guidelines. It had covered up the tactic by camouflaging its code when the app was accessed from Apple’s California headquarters.
Saltzman said he’s concerned Greyball-style software could be used not only against regulators, but also to discriminate against customers who might be less profitable. Uber, like a traditional taxi company, is required to provide 24-hour service across the entire city.
The investigative report also recommends strengthening the city’s ability to fine companies for evading its audits.
Commissioner Nick Fish earlier called for the city council to use its subpoena power to get to the bottom of Uber’s Greyball scheme.
The Greyball report came during a rough patch for Uber as it generated a drumbeat of headlines about its corporate culture.
In February, a female former software engineer published accusations of sexual harassment and sexism at Uber, prompting the company to launch an investigation.
And in January, Uber turned off surge pricing as New York City taxi drivers protested President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. It was seen as an act of collaboration with the new administration, with which Kalanick had served on an economic advisory council.
He left the position after a #DeleteUber campaign went viral, reportedly prompting more than 200,000 customers to delete their accounts.