Thursday, December 13, 2018

Uber Sued Over “Robo-Texts” in Austin Election Battle

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comment from Uber. 

Ride-hailing company Uber was hit with a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday over “robo-text messages” the company has been sending Austin customers seeking their support for a controversial referendum on the ballot Saturday.  

The suit, filed in federal court, claims Uber violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act by sending “thousands of unwanted text messages” to Uber users in the city without prior consent. 

“Uber has violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act … by robo-texting thousands of unwanted text messages to the cell phones of thousands of Uber users in Austin, Texas – all without the prior express consent of those receiving Uber’s text messages – as part of a political campaign by Uber to oppose mandates from the City of Austin which impose various background check procedures for Uber drivers,” argues the lawsuit filed by Melissa Cubria in the U.S. District Court for the Western District. 

On Saturday, Austin voters will decide which regulations the city should adopt for vehicle-for-hire companies. Specifically, the vote is over whether the city should adopt an ordinance largely backed by Uber and Lyft that would prevent the city from requiring drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks. 

Both Uber and Lyft have pledged to leave the city if the ordinance is not adopted. Ridesharing Works for Austin, a group funded exclusively by Uber and Lyft, has launched an ad campaign in support of the proposed ordinance that includes former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Friday Night Lights Actor Taylor Kitsch. 

“It’s absurd to imagine that Uber paid individual, living persons to manually type and then manually send thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) of individual text messages.”— Class-action lawsuit over “robo-text messages” from Uber 

On Wednesday, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, a group against the proposed ordinance, called for an investigation into the “questionable election activities” by Uber and Lyft. 

“Uber and Lyft’s $8.8 million and growing in corporate spending as of Tuesday is a testament to how far these corporations are willing to go to rule Austin and overturn Austin’s public safety rules,” said Laura Morrison, a former Austin City Council member, during a Wednesday press conference. “It is obscene to see unprecedented corporate millions poured into a political campaign in an attempt to deceive and manipulate the people of Austin.” 

Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield also spoke at the conference on the ad campaign, pointing specifically to the frequent texts sent by both Uber and Lyft. 

Cubria’s lawsuit contends that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act does not include restrictions on live, manual communications — only generated messages. 

“It’s absurd to imagine that Uber paid individual, living persons to manually type and then manually send thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) of individual text messages in support of a political campaign underway in Austin, Texas,” the lawsuit reads. 

Uber responded with a blanket statement pointing to the timing of the lawsuit as problematic. 

“We have taken great precaution to comply with applicable laws and believe the claims in this lawsuit are meritless,” the statement said. “The announcement of this action at an anti-Prop 1 press conference also reveals how it was designed to unduly influence the election.” 

Disclosure: Uber and Lyft have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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