India’s Delhi region has banned the car-hailing service Uber in the wake of allegations that an Uber driver raped a female passenger over the weekend.
Uber has not yet commented on the ban, which affects the country’s capital, New Delhi. But on Sunday, in response to the allegations, which resulted in the arrest of the driver, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick called the situation “horrific” and laid out how the San Francisco-based startup intends to stem similar crimes in the future. “Our entire team’s hearts go out to the victim of this despicable crime,” Kalanick said in a post to Uber’s website. “We will do everything, I repeat, everything to help bring this perpetrator to justice and to support the victim and her family in her recovery.”
He added that Uber will work with the government to establish new background checks for drivers and work with local organizations to “invest in technology advances to help make New Delhi a safer city for women.”
This isn’t the first time Uber has been banned by local governments, but typically, those bans have to do with regulatory spats with local taxi commissions. But while the company has been able to muscle its way through other battles with regulators, the Delhi ban reflects a far deeper weakness in Uber’s—and indeed, the entire sharing economy’s—system. As a recent WIRED cover story pointed out, services like Uber are founded on trust in total strangers—trust that can sometimes be misplaced.
The Delhi allegations follow similar incidents that have threatened to undermine this trust. There have been stories of homophobic and racist rants, kidnapping, and one particularly gruesome incident in which a passenger was brutally beaten by the driver with a hammer. There have been other rape allegations, as well.
So, earlier this year, Uber finally amended its background check policies in the U.S. Originally, drivers in the UberX program, who Uber considers to be contractors, not full-time employees, only had to go through a screening of multi-state criminal records. And because those records can be incomplete, Uber now submits those drivers to county and federal background checks, as well.
As Uber has aggressively expanded abroad, however, it has taken a more hands-off approach, leaving it to local governments to conduct background checks on drivers. It’s a risky—and arguably highly irresponsible—move on Uber’s part, particularly in places like Delhi with shockingly high rates of rape. In fact, this weekend’s news comes almost exactly two years after the well-publicized and tragic gang rape that occurred on a public bus in Delhi.
While it’s encouraging that Uber plans to change its policies in Delhi now, what the company really needs to do is develop more proactive ways to protect its passengers, no matter where they are in the world. Airbnb had to do the same back in 2013 after a slew of reports in which renters trashed their hosts’ homes. Airbnb knew it could only have a vibrant marketplace if people felt safe renting their homes to strangers, and so it hired an investigations team, which includes ex-military intelligence officers, to exercise crowd control.n
Uber is at a similar tipping point. For too long, Uber’s leaders have put growth first and made excuses about why the company’s not to blame for the violent crimes that come later. But Uber’s pockets are now fat with billions of dollars in funding. It’s time for the company to spend some of that cash on keeping its customers safe. Their lives—and Uber’s life—depends on it.
Update: This story originally said the Uber ban affected New Delhi. It affects the entire Delhi region.