Portland will investigate Uber amid ‘Greyball’ reports

Uber used a program called "Greyball" to weed out inspectors in cities where the company operated illegally

Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman and Mayor Ted Wheeler hold a press conference about allegations surrounding Uber, March 6, 2017 (KOIN)
Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman and Mayor Ted Wheeler hold a press conference about allegations surrounding Uber, March 6, 2017 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The City of Portland is launching an investigation into Uber amid recent reports the company used a program called “Greyball” to deceive authorities in cities where it operated illegally.

A New York Times report detailed how the ride sharing company used Greyball to root out inspectors that sought to ticket drivers in cities where the company operated without permission. The report states these practices took place in Portland prior to the city’s agreement with Uber that would eventually allow the company to operate legally within city limits.

To build a case against Uber, inspectors would pretend to be customers, call rides and then ticket drivers after completing the trip. Greyball would be used to tag inspectors and weed them out, preventing them from being picked up. It worked off data collected from the Uber app and other ways.

This latest news comes after a video was released showing Uber CEO Travis Kalanick fighting with one of his own drivers.

After seeing the report, City Commissioner Nick Fish said he wanted the city to investigate Uber and make sure the company didn’t violate any state or federal laws in terms of privacy, fraud or obstruction of justice. Mayor Ted Wheeler said he was “very concerned” Uber may have purposefully worked to thwart the city’s job to protect the public.

The Portland City Council voted in April 2015 to allow Uber to operate in the city, and it has been allowed to continue since. Fish and Commissioner Amanda Fritz both voted against approving the company in a 3-2 decision. Fish said he also wants to make sure Portland hasn’t violated its 2015 agreement with the city.

Fish told KOIN 6 News he is not “pro-uber” or “anti-uber,” but he wants a “thorough independent investigation.”

On Monday afternoon, Wheeler and City Commissioner Dan Saltzman announced the investigation and said it’d be completed by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, but the mayor also said other resources could be called into the investigation. Saltzman will act as the council’s point man for the investigation since he is the transportation commissioner. Saltzman said he first became aware of Greyball because of the New York Times report.

The investigation is expected to be complete in 30 days, according to Wheeler. And although Wheeler said there’s no direct evidence Lyft engaged in similar practices, the city will seek assurance in writing the company won’t follow similar action against inspectors.

Wheeler said as part of the investigation the City of Portland will seek additional documentation on Greyball. If Uber doesn’t cooperate with the investigation, Fish said they could be subpoenaed.

“How can we trust Uber to do the right thing?” Fish asked.

The commissioner said Uber has an “unhealthy culture,” and it runs over consumers and regulators to disrupt the market.

Fish and Wheeler both expressed concerns Uber could use similar technology to profile customers today.

“They can cherry pick who they serve,” Fish said.

An official with PBOT said the bureau has already collected quite a bit of data from Uber as part of regular inspections.

“We don’t see a lot of complaints regarding driver conduct,” the PBOT official said.

Although the bureau didn’t specifically know about the existence of Greyball, it was aware Uber was somehow avoiding inspectors, the official confirmed. PBOT even went as far as to seek an injunction against the company in December 2014, but that stopped being an issue when the city council later agreed to let Uber operate. PBOT said it has not had any issues with Uber dodging inspectors since that 2015 agreement.

A July 2015 report found after the launch of Uber (and Lyft), Portland taxi companies had lost half their business. Fish said a couple taxi companies had completely gone out of business since the arrival of ride sharing companies.

If the city council does take action against Uber as a result of any investigations, Fish said he’s confident things will be different than they were in 2015 when it agreed to let the company operate in city limits. The primary change? Two of the city commissioners that voted to allow Uber into Portland aren’t on the city council anymore.

Should action be taken against Uber, the company could face fines and sanctions. It could even lose its permission to operate in Portland, Saltzman said.

Both Saltzman and Wheeler said Uber is making efforts to undermine Portland’s ride sharing regulations by going to the Oregon Legislature. Saltzman said if Uber is unhappy with a city’s regulations, the company goes to state legislators in order to preempt those regulations. He gave Texas as an example of that happening.

KOIN 6 News has reached out to Uber for a statement on Fish’s call for an investigation, and this story will be updated when the company responds.