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Editorial: Ride-hailing service needs to give up questionable effort to dodge regulation

There is a belief gathering steam that ride-hailing services should be part of the fabric of life in New York State.

In these app-driven times it seems logical that we have access to the modern-day conveniences that can be found in the least-modern parts of the world, but not here.

Still, ride-hailing services must be willing to compete on a level playing field with others – traditional taxicab and limousine services – without skirting the law.

Uber, the most globally recognizable ride-hailing brand, has been engaging in a practice that raises concerns about the company’s willingness to compete fairly.

The New York Times recently reported that the company has “for years” engaged in a worldwide program meant to deceive the authorities in markets where government was trying to clamp down on the service.

The program involves a software tool called Greyball, which uses data collected from the Uber app and other dubious techniques to identify officials considered likely to be investigating Uber practices.

Greyball was part of a program called VTOS, or “violation of terms of service.” It was begun to find people the company believed were improperly using its service to gather information that could lead to limits on its ability to function, according to the Times article. The program, started as early as 2014, remains in use, mostly outside the United States. Although Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team, it is, even in the hyper-digital, app-driven, social media era, sneaky at best.

In one example from 2014 cited by the Times, code enforcement officers in Portland, Ore., tried hailing Uber cars downtown in order to document that the company was operating without city permission.

Officers posing as riders opened the Uber app and watched in Pac-Man fashion as miniature vehicles on the screen headed toward them, but then found the calls canceled. Uber’s software had Greyballed those riders and served their smartphones with fake representations of available rides.

Perhaps the use of the program started because the company was concerned about the safety of drivers in markets where they were being physically attacked, as Uber employees described. As cited in the story, taxi companies and workers in France, India and Kenya vehemently opposed to Uber used the Uber app to identify and intimidate new Uber drivers.

But the practice grew into something more troubling as the company used “Greyballing” to stay out of the crosshairs of local officials. It has raised red flags among government officials worldwide. That’s good.

The State Legislature is working on rules that would legalize ride-hailing, but for now upstate New York is, embarrassingly, deprived of the transportation option.

Those rules need to be reasonable and fair to both riders and the companies providing transportation. Software such as Greyball that allows some companies to circumvent legitimate rules has no place in the equation.

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