Uber's India Rape Case Shows How the Company Is Still Cutting Corners

The company’s practices may have changed in the US, but its underlying values sure haven’t.

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Dec 8 2014, 5:55pm

The image Uber used when it launched in Delhi last year. ​Image: Uber

After on​e of its drivers allegedly raped a woman last week, Uber has bee​n banned in Delhi, India, and the company has vowed to revisit its safety procedures there.

Beyond the tragedy that is sexual assault and the healing this woman will have to go through, why should you, a presumably first world Uber user, care about what one Uber driver did in India? Well, because it's another instance of the company cutting corners everywhere it possibly can until laws or bad publicity gets in the way.

Earlier this year, Uber decided to pass the buck, literally, on keeping you safe: it added a $1 "Safe Rides ​Fee" to all trips taken through UberX, its "rideshare" service in which ordinary car owners provide the rides. That fee may have been implemented to give the impression that Uber cares about safety. But by opting for an extra fee instead of including the costs of safety into the base fare suggests that Uber believes hiring people who don't rape and assault other people is not part of its core mission.

Gawker's Sam Biddle summed it​ up quite nicely at the time: "It's only a dollar, but since when do we have to pay extra to not get raped?"

Uber's entry into in India show that the corporation's sensibilities and values—that is, to crush existing taxi services and its tech savvy competitors like Lyft—haven't changed a bit, even if some high-profile cases ( like the​ time it called a several-hour abduction of a woman an "inefficient route") in the US have forced the company to take a modicum of responsibility for its drivers. Now, we get at least a basic background check and nonsense like the "Safe Rides Fee" (which only exists in Canada and the​ US, according to the company).

From Uber's Delhi launch party. Image: Uber

But in developing countries, Uber is making the same mistakes with rider safety that it made in the United States. It's treating these countries like the Wild West until it's forced to change: "If [Uber] can bully its way in the US, and not care about law and regulations there, then it has absolutely nothing to worry about in India," wrote o​ne internet commenter who claimed to have experience with the company there. "The law enforcement is weak, to say the least."

According to the Eco​nomic Times, Uber had been operating in Delhi without any sort of license—in fact, the city said it didn't even know the company was there.

"In this rape case, the victim was provided a All India Permit Taxi which is not allowed to ferry customers point-to-point in the National capital," Satish Mathur of the Delhi Transportation Department told ​the Economic Times. "Uber never applied for any permission to us … Uber is not authorized to provide any taxi services in the capital … Uber is not an authorized radio cab service and has been operating illegally."

Meanwhile, Uber itself said in a sta​tement that it "will work with the government to establish clear background checks currently absent in their commercial transportation licensing programs."

While it may be initially financially advantageous to get up and running all over the world (Uber currently operates in 51 ​countries), the company is going to continue to have incidents like this one in India if it doesn't think more carefully about doing things not only according to local regulations, but also in a manner that keeps its customers safe and its drivers happy. And, well, every incident like this at least suggests that the company cares more about its bottom line than it does about you or me or a woman in India or a man in Brussels.

People trying out Uber in Delhi soon after it launched. Image: Uber

The idea that it's "just an app company" may fly in the United States (though it may not—the service is temporarily​ banned in Nevada because of safety concerns), it's increasingly looking like it's going to have to operate according to all the rules in countries with slightly less capitalist worldviews.

In hiring drivers without conducting background checks, Uber is implicitly telling its Indian customers that they aren't worthy of the baseline level of safety that has been deemed necessary in developed countries. Because India itself does not require background checks on taxi drivers, Uber didn't do them. And that's quite a shame, because a background check presumably would have turned up the fact that the suspe​ct in this rape case was arrested for raping a woman three years ago before later being acquitted (whether this would have disqualified him in the company's eyes, I have no idea and have reached out to ask).

But background checks cost money and, in Uber's race-to-the-bottom philosophy, unnecessary unless legally mandated. Basic safety and hiring practices aren't precautions, they're after-the-fact public relations maneuvers.

Uber has time and time again suggested that i​t's merely a "platform" and has, at every turn, distanced itse​lf from its drivers' behavior as much as possible. In the United States, that tack has more-or-less worked with regulators (and may work with the legal system—a few cases a​re pending). In India, that stance apparently isn't going to fly: your drivers, your responsibility, Uber.

I've reached out to Uber about its specific practices in India and will update the story if I hear back.​