May 16, 2016

Uber Lobbying and Political Attacks Disrupt Local Democracy, New Report Shows

Study Documents Multibillion-Dollar Corporation’s Clashes With Local Governments in Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Uber Technologies, a San Francisco-based corporation valued at more than $50 billion, is using its vast wealth to overwhelm and undermine local governments in cities across the U.S., a new Public Citizen report shows.

The report, “Disrupting Democracy: How Uber Deploys Corporate Power to Overwhelm and Undermine Local Government,” presents detailed case studies of conflicts between the corporation and local lawmakers and regulators in Austin, Texas; Boston, Mass.; Chicago, Ill.; New York, N.Y.; Philadelphia, Pa.; San Francisco, Calif.; Seattle, Wash. and Washington, D.C.

One week ago today, Uber suspended service in Austin, Texas, after voters rejected Proposition 1, a ballot referendum the company supported with Lyft by funding an $8.6 million political action committee. The referendum would have repealed a city ordinance requiring Uber and Lyft drivers to get fingerprint background checks just as taxi drivers do.

In each case examined in the report, Uber’s expansion is facilitated through the conversion of money power into political power. When city officials try to enact laws or enforce regulations the company opposes, it fights back by using political-style campaign tactics and large-scale lobbying.

“Uber seems to think it can run over local democracy, and in too many cases it has been able to do exactly that,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Living in a democracy means the people have the power to choose their destiny, and it means local governments must make decisions in the public’s best interest. No single company or interest should have the power to use its wealth the way Uber does, overwhelming democracy’s deliberative and decision-making processes.”

“There is no doubt that Uber’s business appeals to many consumers and that taxi service is problematic in many cities,” said Rick Claypool, Public Citizen research director and author of the report. “That is beside the point. The issue is Uber’s power to overwhelm local democracy and force cities to adopt this outside corporation’s specific vision of technological progress.”

There is a pattern to Uber’s conflicts with cities. The company often launches in cities in conflict with local officials’ interpretations of local regulations, while at the same time insisting on the legality of its business. When local law enforcement and other officials respond, the company mobilizes a campaign to “save Uber.”

Likewise, the company resists local legislative efforts that attempt to require the company to follow standards similar to those required of taxicab and limousine companies, framing them as attempts to “shut down” Uber. Because customers are required to provide an email address to access the company’s app, the company is uniquely poised to turn its customer base into grassroots lobbyists who will sign a “save Uber” petition when the company asks.

These petitions, which can generate tens of thousands of signatures, help legitimize the lobbying campaigns the company deploys. These campaigns often include high-powered lobbyists, including some who are former colleagues of the government officials they are lobbying. Uber usually wins these battles against rules and regulations the company opposes, but when it loses, it keeps fighting. When cities pass laws that Uber opposes, the company commonly seeks to have them pre-empted with Uber-approved state law or repealed through voter referenda.

Read the full report.

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