Sen. Al Franken asks Uber and Lyft about alleged racial discrimination against passengers

Senator Al Franken has some questions for Uber and Lyft about racial discrimination following the recently released study that says some of those companies’ respective drivers racially discriminate against passengers. The study, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that black people have to wait longer for rides in Seattle. In Boston, the study revealed that Uber drivers were more than twice as likely to cancel on people with “black-sounding” names.

In light of the NBER’s study and its proposed changes, such as removing names to identify passengers, Franken has asked Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Lyft CEO Logan Green in a letter why it’s necessary to include names and photos of passengers requesting rides, what steps Uber and Lyft can take to dissuade drivers from canceling rides on people with “black-sounding” names and engaging in other discriminatory behavior, and what current policies Uber and Lyft respectively have in place to detect discriminatory behavior. Franken wants them to respond by Dec. 16, 2016. He specifically asks Kalanick and Green:

  • In order to guard against discrimination in the process of accepting ride requests, to the extent that your company allows drivers to view photographs of travelers prior to accepting a ride request, is your company considering eliminating traveler photos? If not, why?
  • Similarly, in light of the study’s findings that drivers have canceled ride requests on the basis of whether a traveler’s name sounds as if it belongs to an African-American person, to the extent that your company allows drivers to view travelers’ names in the course of accepting a ride request, is your company considering eliminating the use of names to identify passengers? Insofar as the performance of the app may require that you assign travelers a unique identifier, is your company contemplating assigning travelers an alphanumeric code in lieu of using names? If not, why?
  • Your companies’ non-discrimination policies already prohibit discrimination against passengers on the basis of race and other characteristics, and provide that violations of those policies may result in drivers losing access to your platforms or having their accounts deactivated. What additional steps will you take to disincentivize drivers from canceling rides or engaging in other discriminatory behavior?
  • In order to detect discriminatory conduct and take steps to address it, do you collect data on driver behavior, such as wait times across passengers and the frequency of canceled rides? Does your company periodically audit driver behavior? If not, will you develop plans to better detect driver behavior that could signal discriminatory conduct, or adopt a practice of performing periodic audits?

“Regrettably, African Americans and other racial minorities have long experienced discrimination when attempting to hail a taxi directly from the curb, with cabs either driving past African-American customers or refusing to accept passengers traveling to certain neighborhoods,” Franken wrote in the letter addressed to Kalanick and Green. “Ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft have the potential to offer consumers relief from discrimination and destination bias, and have already shown great promise by increasing travel options within underserved neighborhoods. But as app-based driving services reshape the transportation industry, it is essential that companies ensure technology does not give cover to bias, whether intentional or unconscious.”