The day that Delhi delivered a verdict that swept away all the diatribes about “anti-national” protesters who must be rewarded with bullets, Uber reinstated a driver in Mumbai who was suspended earlier this month for secretly taping the phone conversation of a passenger, and using it to present him to the police as an “anti-national”. Jaipur poet and activist Bappadittya Sarkar, who had attended the “Mumbai Bagh” protest, had discussed Shaheen Bagh. An innocuous conversation, but the driver, while handing his passenger over to the police instead of taking him to his destination, was reported to have spoken abrasively. The poet was let off by the police, who only warned him to keep himself safe. The driver was hailed as an “alert citizen” by a local BJP leader.
Uber has now reinstated the driver and only prescribed “re-sensitisation”, and not barred him from its network as it should have. This is an error of omission, which appears to support the driver’s errors of commission. The driver had totally crossed the legal line in taping his passenger without informing him, as evidence to be used against him, because the Supreme Court has recognised privacy as a fundamental right. In addition, Uber had contracted to take its passenger to a stated destination, but took a detour to a minor ordeal, in the course of which he was detained in a police station late at night.
This case rekindles a debate which has dogged ride-hailing companies for years. Since they do not own cabs or employ drivers, but only pair them with riders, who is liable if a passenger’s safety is compromised or her rights violated? In addition, Uber itself has been found to be less than willing to ensure passenger safety so frequently that it may be banned by the Transport for London Authority. Ola is using the opportunity to enter its rival’s most lucrative market, highlighting safety features.
The incident in Mumbai holds a lesson for all ride-hailing companies and the jurisdictions which they operate in. The cavalier manner in which a passenger’s privacy was violated suggests that some Uber drivers need a foundational course in public ethics. The actions of its driver violated individual rights, and had public effects involving the police, a wing of the government.
Uber has got away with conducting an internal investigation and prescribing a sensitisation course, which is appalling. But can a company be expected to be responsible if it has no obvious liability? Currently, ride-hailing companies are governed by regulators and market forces. But in the interest of passenger safety, they must know that in such cases, they may suffer not only business costs, but also legal pain.
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