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Uber changes course, will not push sexual assault victims into arbitration

The changes will provide more transparency into Uber's safety issues and come as Uber's new CEO is trying to change perception of the company.
Image: A self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh
A self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh on Sept. 12, 2016.Gene J. Puskar / AP file

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber will no longer force customers, drivers or employees who claim they were sexually assaulted or harassed when using the ride-hailing service to pursue their cases behind closed doors, a move meant to make the company’s safety issues more transparent.

Previously, people with such claims were forced to take their claims to arbitration, a private legal framework that shields cases from public view. Victims who settled claims were also required to sign confidentiality agreements, effectively silencing them.

On Tuesday, Uber said it was changing those rules to allow its customers to choose their preferred course, which will now include open court as well as private mediation.

Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, said the company has “learned it’s important to give sexual assault and harassment survivors control of how they pursue their claims.”

“Whatever they decide, they will be free to tell their story wherever and however they see fit,” West wrote in a blog post.

When signing up for Uber, the company’s terms of service previously required riders to agree to settle any claims through private arbitration. Following Uber’s announcement, its closest competitor, Lyft, said it would also end forced arbitration and confidentiality agreements for passengers, drivers and employees.

Confidentiality agreements, however, did not stop a variety of sexual assault allegations against Uber drivers from becoming public. A recent CNN report found that at least 103 Uber drivers in the United States had been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing their passengers over the past four years.

Uber also announced its intention to release a transparency report sometime in the next year that will detail sexual assault reports and other incidents that happen to users of the app.

West, a former prosecutor who handled sexual exploitation cases, said the company has been working with more than 80 women’s groups and special advisers to figure out the best methodology for the report. Two out of three sexual assaults go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Releasing a report is a “decision we struggled to make,” West said, “in part because data on safety and sexual assaults is sparse and inconsistent.”

Uber has not set a date for when the first report will be released, but a spokesperson told NBC News it could be expected “in the coming year.”

West said he hopes Uber’s work with the women’s groups can help create a uniform industry standard that can be applied across the public and private transportation industries.

The change is the latest move for Uber as its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, works to turn the page on the company’s troubled past and regain the trust of employees, drivers and passengers.

Over the past year, Uber has worked to fix its internal culture of sexual harassment and discrimination, settled a trade secrets lawsuit over self-driving cars with competitor Waymo, and dealt with fallout over a data breach it previously covered up, among other issues.

Khosrowshahi’s mantra has been: “We do the right thing, period.”

With that, he’s launched a public relations spree with commercials aimed at rebuilding trust with passengers, as well as a number of new safety features, including better driver screenings, the ability to share live trip information with trusted contacts, and an emergency 911 button within the app.