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Portland Launches Investigation Into Uber Program That Deceived Regulators

Christina Belasco
People can summon drivers from ride services like Uber through smartphone apps.

Portland is launching an investigation into the ride-hailing company Uber in response to allegations reported by the New York Times last week.

The paper reported Uber used a software program called Greyball to identify and then deceive regulators in Portland and cities around the world.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Monday the city needs to know if Uber has continued to use the Greyball program.

“Just because you’re smart, successful and rich does not mean you are bestowed with ethics. And this company seems to repeatedly demonstrate that point,” Wheeler said in a press conference Monday. "These revelations have to shake everybody's confidence in how this company is operating."

Transportation commissioner Dan Saltzman said the city will complete its investigation within 30 days.

Saltzman said the Portland Department of Transportation will investigate Lyft and Uber. The investigation will include a review of compliance audits, rider complaints and other unspecified data from the companies.

Wheeler said the investigation will also include a request Uber provide documents detailing how Greyball was used in Portland.

Wheeler said he isn't sure yet if the city has the power to compel Uber to provide those documents if the company refuses to do so.

Jon Isaacs, a spokesman and lobbyist for Uber, said the company has not used the Greyball software in Portland since the company relaunched with city approval in 2014.

"We’ve informed Commissioner Saltzman that we will openly and transparently participate in the city’s inquiry," Isaacs said.

The New York Times reported Uber originally developed Greyball to protect drivers and identify and block users who violated Uber's user agreement, before adapting it to help evade regulators.

Isaacs said Uber currently uses a different system to deal with riders in Portland who violate the company's rules.

"We have an incident response team," he said. "When they do an investigation and we find that a rider has violated community guidelines, they are removed from the platform."

The controversy comes as Uber is preparing to launch its service in central Oregon, with approval of regulators there.

And the company, along with Lyft, is pushing for legislation that would make it easier for ride-hailing apps to operate across Oregon.

That bill, House Bill 3246, would exempt the companies from city regulations that apply to taxi and limo companies.

House Bill 3246 is being sponsored by Reps. Brian Clem (D-Salem), Jodi Hack (R-Salem), and Ann Lininger (D-Lake Oswego) and Sens. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Portland).

Wheeler and Saltzman said they oppose that effort and view it as another attempt to get around Portland's regulations.

"When they're not happy with the way cities are regulating them, they typically go to the state Legislature to get preemptive legislation," said Saltzman.

Isaacs said the bill creates consistent rules for ride-sharing app companies and for passengers.

"It will establish fair and necessary regulations across the state, and greatly expand transportation in all Oregon communities," he said.

Isaacs noted that many aspects of transportation, including car insurance requirements, are regulated at the statewide level.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting.