Uber Releases Sexual Assault Data After Years Of Criticism

A new report, which also includes information about traffic fatalities, could lead more companies to be transparent about sexual violence.

WASHINGTON — In an unprecedented move for a public company, or any business, Uber released data on Thursday revealing the number of incidents of sexual assault reported by riders and drivers on its ride-sharing platform in 2017 and 2018.

The voluminous 84-page report fulfills the company’s promise last year to be transparent about safety, and publicly release information about incidents of sexual assault. The report also includes numbers on traffic fatalities and deaths resulting from physical assaults that took place during rides.

Considering Uber’s vast scale — 2.3 billion rides during the period examined — all of these incidents occur very rarely: More than 99.9% of rides on the platform happen without a hitch, the report makes clear. But that’s cold comfort to the people who’ve been sexually assaulted.

“Even one report is one too many,” the company notes in the introduction.

Uber’s track record on how it investigates sexual assault incidents has been rocky, and the company has previously been accused of whitewashing incidents.

In the new report, the multibillion dollar company is painstaking in the way it presents this delicate information, spending about 50 pages putting the issues in context before digging in to data, and repeatedly emphasizing its vast scale and the fact that sexual assault happens in all corners of the U.S.

Indeed, riders are likely safer in an Uber than at home or at school ― about 80% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, according to widely cited statistics from the Department of Justice.

The safety report is arguably the highest profile move Uber has made since its current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi took the helm a little over two years ago. He made safety a priority and brought on a former Obama-era DOJ official, Tony West, as chief legal counsel.

Still, this isn’t the kind of data companies are keen to reveal. “To be candid, it was a hard decision to make the commitment to publish this report,” West said in an interview with HuffPost. “And the downside is it gives more people more targets to criticize.”

However, West — who pushed the Justice Department to stop enforcing the widely criticized Defense of Marriage Act — was adamant. Uber has a responsibility to millions of users, both riders and drivers. “The public has a right to know this data,” he said. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

However, just how much responsibility Uber has to drivers, and how much legal liability it bears for their actions, is something the company is currently fighting over, arguing that its drivers should be considered contractors, not employees.

Uber released the report early to a handful of outlets, including HuffPost, with the caveat that the information in it not be discussed with experts besides those who had already consulted on it, a group that included researchers from the Urban Institute and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center; employees of security consulting firm The Chertoff Group; and RALIANCE, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation.

The Numbers

The numbers cover riders and drivers, as well as “third parties,” like people who hitch a ride with a friend who used the app.

Drivers, perhaps surprisingly, were victims in 42% of all incidents reported. Riders filed 56% of the reports. Third party complaints made up 2% of the total.

In the category of what Uber calls “nonconsensual sexual penetration,” or rape, riders made up nearly all the victims. In those cases, 92% of victims were riders and 89% were women or female identified. (Gender information was not provided for the four other categories.)

The company took a fairly expansive view as to what to include in the safety report, counting incidents that took place within a 48-hour period after the ride ended and tallying every report made, almost entirely regardless of whether the report resulted in a legal proceeding. Uber has said repeatedly that its intent is to believe survivors.

In 2017, 229 rapes were reported out of 1 billion rides. The number was 235 the next year, out of 1.3 billion rides. The incidents include reports directly to Uber through its app, website and hotline; made by third parties; reported on in the press; shared on social media; or filed with police.

The data was vetted by outside experts, including from NSVRC, a leading nonprofit that is one of several Uber partnered with to teach the company about a subject with which it had little familiarity. The Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm founded by former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, also evaluated some aspects of the process.

In the past, the NSVRC also consulted with the NFL, which spent millions on sexual violence prevention initiatives to rehabilitate its reputation after a domestic violence incident involving the player Ray Rice garnered widespread outrage in 2014.

Similarly, Uber has injected millions into the nonprofit world to address sexual assault ― although, compared to the NFL, more of its efforts appeared to be focused internally.

In the fall of 2017, Uber pledged to give nonprofits $5 million to fund sexual violence prevention initiatives. In recent years, the company has worked with more than 200 groups from women’s advocates to law enforcement on this issue.

The promise to report the actual sexual assault numbers came last year amid a cloud of negative attention over several incidents. It was part of a multi-pronged effort to restore a reputation left in tatters by Uber’s previous leadership, which oversaw a morass of reportedly unethical business practices, sexual harassment and assault allegations, and a frat-house culture. It also arrives months after Uber’s widely anticipated — but ultimately disappointing — IPO. (The company had to undergo layoffs and discontinue some of its more absurd tech startup perks, like helium balloons).

In addition to the sexual assault numbers, Uber’s report also reveals traffic fatality data: There were 49 Uber-related deaths in 2017 and 58 in 2018.

For context, in 2018 alone, 36,560 people lost their lives in motor vehicle fatalities in the U.S., according to federal data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Uber cross-checked its fatality numbers with federal data.

Uber says that traffic fatalities were far less likely to occur on its platform than in the general population ― in part because its drivers are older (at least 21) and the cars they drive are newer.

The company also disclosed the number of users who die from physical assaults related to its service: There were 19 such deaths over the two-year period.

Federal agencies are more precise in tracking these other categories than they are at looking at sexual assault. Sexual violence isn’t well understood for many reasons, including a lack of common understanding among law enforcement about what it is and a long-standing apparent lack of interest among the men who dominate law enforcement and law making in the U.S.

Sexual violence is also much more hidden from public view. Three out of four victims do not report sexual assault, according to DOJ statistics, which means that Uber’s numbers likely understate the number of incidents.

When Uber first embarked on the effort to report this information and asked sexual violence advocates for help, they were headed into uncharted territory. The experts who spoke to HuffPost said no other company has tracked this information ― though, of course, they have sexual assault problems, too. But it’s worth noting that no hotel chain or airline has a system of tracking — and then making public — complaints, the experts said.

Considering the novelty of the data, HuffPost focused on the sexual assault numbers in the report. (Colleges that receive public money do have to disclose this kind of data.)

What Exactly Is Sexual Assault?

It’s critical to understand what the company means when it says “sexual assault.” The term gets thrown around a lot, particularly in the Me Too era, where it’s been used to describe everything from a politician’s unwelcome kissing and pats on the buttocks to rape.

Uber looked at what it says are the five most serious types of sexual assault that happens on its platform: From unwelcome kisses on the cheek, which Uber calls “nonconsensual kissing of a nonsexual body part” (570 reports of that in 2017 and 594 in 2018), to grabbing breasts, or “nonconsensual touching of a sexual body part” (1,440 reports in 2017 and 1,560 incidents in 2018), all the way up to the rape category.

Over a two-year period, a total of 5,981 sexual assault incidents across all five categories were reported out of more than 2 billion rides. That’s just .00026%. The company says the rate of sexual assaults actually dropped 16% from 2017 to 2018, hypothesizing that might have been because it tightened its driver requirements and added new safety features in that time period ― during which former CEO Travis Kalanick, who once dubbed the service he founded “boober,” was ousted from the company.

In 2016, Uber settled a $28.5 million lawsuit over claims that one of its safety features was essentially window dressing.

Over the past two years under Khosrowshahi, the company implemented multiple new features, including a 911 button in the app, an anonymization system so that drivers don’t have a record of rider’s exact address, and the option for riders to share trip information in real time with trusted friends.

In 2018, Uber began using a technology that continually checks drivers’ records for criminal charges, leading to the removal of 40,000 drivers who no longer meet its standards.

Some changes were made with the input of the sexual violence experts, like anonymizing data, which is critical especially for domestic violence victims who don’t want abusive partners to know their whereabouts or for drivers to have a record of their address.

With the help of the experts, Uber released a taxonomy last year defining 21 categories of sexual misconduct and assault ranging from flirting to rape. After sorting through user complaints, the ride-hailing company realized it had to add a category for “up-skirt” photos, the practice of taking secret inappropriate pictures.

Activists and Uber hope the taxonomy ― which it made publicly available ― will be a game changer and give other companies a way to track sexual assault that didn’t exist before.

The categories, which are behavior focused, also may make it easier for victims to talk about what happened to them. Rather than have to answer a question like “Did he rape you?” or “Did he assault you?,” they can describe the behavior: “He grabbed my breast” or “He used his finger to penetrate my vagina.” Using behavioral descriptors is the preferred way of reporting and tracking sexual violence, according to research cited in Uber’s taxonomy.

Centering Survivors

West, the in-house counsel, was emotional on Wednesday when he spoke with HuffPost in Uber’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. His sister-in-law Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) had just dropped her bid for the Democratic nomination for president. And West, whose wife Maya Harris worked on Sen. Harris’s campaign, teared up when asked about it. “That campaign. What it meant to little girls around the country,” he said, tears running down his cheeks. “I’m very proud of her.

Uber takes a survivor-centric approach to sexual assault, West told HuffPost. As soon as an incident report is filed, Uber de-activates the accused’s account, whether it’s a rider or a driver. And, West said, the company won’t hesitate to ban someone from the service.

It’s a startling change from how Uber reportedly handled assault accusations under its previous leadership, and from how many companies operate. For example, HuffPost reported on a company last year that continued to employ an executive for three years, even as he was awaiting trial for assaulting his girlfriend.

“We have an obligation to keep riders safe. I don’t want anyone to come away and think drivers are out there as perpetrators,” West said. “Just like in the workplace, we will fire people for sexual assault.”

However, it is easy for Uber to ban drivers, whom it doesn’t consider employees, or one rider out of millions of customers.

“This is a big step, no doubt. Secrecy about sexual harassment and sexual violence is what has allowed it to be rampant and forced women to feel alone, shame, guilt. The policy of leading with believing the victim is truly extraordinary,” Nancy Erika Smith, a New Jersey-based attorney who handles sexual discrimination and violence cases, told HuffPost after the report was released.

A reputation for safety is key for Uber to stay in business, and might give it an edge over its only other major ride-sharing competitor, Lyft, which has an estimated 30% of the market in the U.S. Last year, when Uber said it would stop requiring users to take sexual assault allegations to private arbitration, Lyft quickly followed suit. (Just this week, 19 women sued Lyft, claiming it didn’t do enough to keep them safe from sexual assault.)

Data as granular as this isn’t available in the taxi or transportation industries.

“Taxi reporting has always been difficult,” said Ebony Tucker, Executive Director of RALIANCE, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation. “There’s different companies. Different ways to report. It’s hard.”

Tucker added that Uber’s technology makes it a somewhat ideal way to report sexual violence: Victims don’t have to remember where they were, or what time it was when the incident happened ― the app tracks so much data. The company is currently testing ways users can record trips with video and audio, as well.

What About Other Companies?

Unlike data on revenue and profits, there’s no legal requirement to track this information. And, because there’s little agreement on what “sexual assault” actually entails, it’s hard to do so.

Still, West, and advocates for sexual assault survivors, hope Uber’s move will push other companies to follow. It’s not an unreasonable hope. Tech companies once kept quiet about the percentages of women and people of color they employed. Now, thanks to public pressure from activists, diversity reports are fairly standard.

Sexual assault, however, is arguably a far more sensitive topic ― only in about the past ten years has anyone been willing to even talk about it, experts told HuffPost.

“Sexual assault happens everywhere,” Karen Baker, the chief executive officer of the NSVRC, who wrote a forward for the safety report, told HuffPost. “People should ask other companies how they’re counting and how they’re being transparent.”

“I think [Uber] did a remarkable job. They did their due diligence,” Baker said. “Most organizations I’ve worked with do everything they can to minimize the problem. Uber wasn’t taking that approach. They understand that sexual assault happens everywhere. So, of course it’s happening there and why wouldn’t they be honest? We hope that’s the beginning of holding other companies accountable.”

Baker and the other advocates said that after the report comes out, complaints of sexual assault might actually increase. It’s common for survivors to speak up after a highly publicized event — sexual discrimination and harassment complaints have gone up in the wake of the Me Too movement, for example.

Uber’s “safety board,” a panel of experts in sexual violence and other issues, was actually put together in the Kalanick era. But Tucker said that any efforts to address assault (sexual or otherwise) were blocked by leadership. They largely were paid to do nothing, she said, and she was growing increasingly fed up.

“We were ready to leave the board,” said Tucker. But then there was a new regime. “The change in CEO happened and it was night and day.”

This story has been update to include a quote from Nancy Erika Smith.

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