There was a time when Uber seemed to rule Portland City Hall.
In 2014, the Silicon Valley ride-hailing company muscled its way into the city, thumbing its nose at inspectors and taxi companies. Uber hired a well-connected lobbyist who consulted on the political campaigns of Mayor Charlie Hales as well as City Commissioners Steve Novick and Dan Saltzman—and persuaded the three to support making its high-tech car service legal.
Hales and Novick are no longer in office. And Saltzman is now overseeing a city investigation of Uber.
Last week, The New York Times revealed that when Uber operated illegally in 2014, it used a software called "Greyball" to evade a city crackdown. The app blocked suspected city inspectors, then filled the screens of inspectors' smartphones with fake rides while Uber drivers escaped undetected.
It was no secret even in 2014 that Uber was dodging inspectors. But the report of high-tech deception has brought sharp criticism.
"This is a company that has taken the time at the highest levels to create a special application for the purpose of falsifying the information on their primary app for regulators," Mayor Ted Wheeler said March 6 as he announced a city investigation into Uber's alleged deception.
The report on Greyball sets up confrontations between Portland officials and Uber on at least three fronts.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation has launched a 30-day investigation looking for evidence of continuing deception by Uber or its competitor, Lyft. PBOT plans to examine rider complaints, compliance audits and other data on rides, looking for civil or criminal violations. The city could potentially fine companies or bar them from Portland.
City Commissioner Nick Fish wants to know if Uber used Greyball only to block regulators—or if it blocked unwanted customers, too. "Once you have figured out how to effectively redline consumers," he says, "what prevents you from blocking people who live in poorer areas, older adults, people with animals, people with disabilities?"
"We're looking carefully at the use of this technology and will update you as soon as we know more," says Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley.
A bill in the Oregon House would remove Portland's authority to regulate Uber. House Bill 3246 would create statewide rules for Uber, disbanding Portland's collection of fees and forestalling city restrictions.
Wheeler's evaluation of the bill is scathing. "While this [scandal] is being revealed," he said, "the very same people are quietly working in Salem to undercut our entire regulatory framework."
At least one sponsor of the bill, Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem), is already backing away, calling for a carve-out to let Portland enforce its own rules. "My interest is expanding the service to my city (Salem) and the rest of the state and not getting the bill hung up in a political battle over Portland's existing rules," he writes in an email.
If the Legislature doesn't give Uber protections, the company will face a new round of city rule-making this spring.
The City Council is expected to consider small, technical code changes. But the scope could expand if the mayor's office decides it wants to limit Uber's freedom to operate. And the politics look grim for the company: Portland's two newest elected officials, Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, are vocal skeptics of ride-hailing companies.
"Just because you're smart, successful and rich does not mean you are bestowed with ethics," Wheeler said March 6. "This company seems to repeatedly demonstrate that point. These revelations have to shake everybody's confidence in how this company is operating."