Why Uber is Speaking Up About Sexual Violence

“Data is everything to a tech company like ours,” Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West told Ms. in an interview at the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference. “It’s so important. And we jealously guard that data.”

That was a challenge when the rideshare app entered into a partnership with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “They needed to see and understand some of the data—but we were kind of like, but that’s our data,” West remembered. “But they were patient enough with us, and we were able to build a relationship of trust, and now it’s sort of like: they’ve seen the worst of the worst.”

Today, Uber also shared the worst of it with the rest of us—releasing a Safety Report that revealed the extent to which Uber riders and drivers are sexually assaulted during trips.

According to Uber’s internal data across 2017 and 2018, non-consensual kissing occurred in one of every 2,000,000 completed rides, and non-consensual touching occurred in one of every 800,000; during one of every 4,000,000 trips, there was an attempted rape, and someone was raped in one out of every 5,000,000.

“Voluntarily publishing a report that discusses these difficult safety issues is not easy,” West said in a statement Thursday. “Most companies don’t talk about issues like sexual violence because doing so risks inviting negative headlines and public criticism. But we feel it’s time for a new approach.”

That approach is shaped by West’s previous work experience—most recently, serving as Associate Attorney General for the U.S. under President Obama. “As someone who has prosecuted sex crimes and worked on these issues for more than 25 years, I can tell you that a new approach is sorely needed,” he added. “Confronting sexual violence requires honesty, and it’s only by shining a light on these issues that we can begin to provide clarity on something that touches every corner of society. And, most importantly, by bringing hard data to bear, we can make every trip safer for drivers and riders alike.”

It’s also shaped by that partnership Uber forged with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Urban Institute. Together, they created an open-source classification system for counting and categorizing incidences of sexual assault, which made the Safety Report possible.

“As an advocate who has been working in the movement to end sexual violence for the past 20 years, I welcome this unprecedented report,” Karen Baker, NSVRC CEO, said in a statement. “Efforts like this embolden our work for a safer future. By releasing this data publicly, Uber is confronting these challenging issues head-on rather than shying away from or minimizing the numbers. In fact, they made the intentional decision to be over-inclusive, capturing data by accepting every report at face value.”

This report doesn’t mark the end of that effort—instead, it ushers in a new beginning. Uber will continue to work with law enforcement officials, road safety organizations and over 200 anti-violence organizations like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence and the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) to confront these issues.

“Uber has been a longtime partner in standing against sexual assault—not just through accountability and transparency, but also by supporting survivors, eliminating barriers to reporting and taking steps to prevent violence and harassment,” Cindy Southworth, NNEDV Interim Chief Executive Officer and member of Uber’s Safety Advisory Board, said in a statement. “We call on other companies to follow Uber’s lead by partnering with anti-violence organizations to release similar.”

Uber has also established, in partnership with the national anti-violence coalition RALIANCE, a resource center dedicated to helping corporate entities do better at responding to and preventing violence.

“Sexual violence affects everyone in every industry. Bringing this issue it into the light, counting it consistently and publicly sharing data is a game-changer and something we don’t see very often,” Ebony Tucker, the Executive Director of RALIANCE, said in a statement. “If we want to end sexual violence in one generation, we need more data—and more companies willing to step up and be accountable.”

The report also measured the hard-fought progress the company has achieved by purposefully expanding safety measures under the directives of Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. In the last two years, for example, Uber tripled their safety team, launched new features like an In-App Emergency Button, driver verification by PIN and the ability to text 911 or report safety incidents during rides. The company also made drivers undergo more rigorous background checks and began using technology to check in on drivers in the case of an unexpectedly long stop.

Those efforts seem to be working: From 2017 to 2018, according to the report, the average rate of the five categories of sexual assault incidents Uber catalogued decreased by 16 percent.

Uber is now also testing new features that allow riders and drivers to record audio during their trips and open communication with other ridesharing companies about banned drivers to keep riders safe across apps. “This is more than an ‘Uber thing,'” West explained in his statement. “Safety should never be proprietary, and it’s our intention to make an impact well beyond our own company, encouraging others to be more transparent with their data and to share best practices that can make everyone safer.”

WATCH: Uber CLO Tony West talks to Ms. with TIME’S UP President and CEO Tina Tchen and RALIANCE Managing Partner Monika Jones Hostler


Carmen Rios is a self-proclaimed feminist superstar and the former digital editor at Ms. Her writing on queerness, gender, race and class has been published in print and online by outlets including BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, DAME, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic, the National Women’s History Museum, SIGNS and the Women’s Media Center; and she is a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine. @carmenriosss|carmenfuckingrios.com