Toronto should avoid getting cozy with toxic Uber

Pittsburgh’s soured relationship with the company should be a red flag to other cities.

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Toxic Uber:

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Uber’s announcement of a new artificial intelligence research lab in Toronto last week sounded like good news, but there are also plenty of reasons to be concerned about the company’s growing presence in the city.

The ride-sharing company is seen as a parasite in Pittsburgh, a city that up until recently was quite chummy with Uber.

In 2015, the company announced a partnership with Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, one of the top AI research labs in the United States. The city also came to the company’s aid last year when it was fined $11.4 million (U.S.) for operating in Pennsylvania without permission, with Mayor Bill Peduto writing a letter to state authorities pleading for leniency.

In exchange, the city asked for help with a number of efforts including the building of a transit connection to the neighbourhood where Uber was testing self-driving vehicles.

The company refused and made more demands in return, according to reports, including prioritized snow removal and access to bus lanes.

Peduto in January blasted the company for turning the relationship into a “one-way street” and last month criticized it for not doing more to help smooth the economic disruption it was ushering in.

“In Pittsburgh we have a saying – if it’s not for all, it’s not for us,” he said in a statement. “We expect our partners to respect our past, just as we do, as we continue to build our future.”

The worst part of the relationship, as Vice’s Motherboard reports, is that Uber hired away much of Carnegie Mellon’s AI staff. About 40 of 100 researchers went over to the company.

Without key staff, the lab then had its budget and projects slashed. No joint efforts with the company were ever launched and Uber gave the university $5 million in return.

Some observers are wondering if the same will happen in Toronto.

“I do think that in many contexts Uber has been somewhat predatory, so it doesn’t surprise me. Uber seems to live larger than life in this way,” University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo told Vice.

That’s a bit of an understatement. The number of problems Uber has gotten itself into thanks to its take-no-prisoners attitude continues to grow on an almost weekly basis.

At the top of the list is the U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Uber for its illegal use of “greyball” tools.

Uber admitted to using Greyball, which helped it detect and avoid government officials in cities where its service was not yet approved, “sparingly” only after the New York Times exposed the practice.

The company has not commented on the probe, while the Department of Justice says it does not confirm or deny possible investigations.

A U.S. court also this week ruled that the company must return files stolen from Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google parent Alphabet.

Uber knew or should have known that an employee it had hired away from Waymo had the files and that the information would have “seeped” into its own research efforts, according to the presiding judge.

In Canada, Uber is also now objecting to paying tax and is rallying customers to lobby elected officials on its behalf.

The company wants a full consultation with the government after the federal budget in March mandated that ride-sharing companies must add the Goods and Services Tax to their services.

Uber says the 5-per-cent levy is a “tax on innovation,” despite the fact that its drivers in Montreal are already collecting it.

All of this is on top of the company’s other mounting controversies, which include charges of sexism from former female employees, reportedly installing tracking software on iPhones and chief executive Travis Kalanick’s own admission that he “must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up” after he was caught on video berating one of his own drivers.

Collectively, all these controversies should amount to a giant stop sign to municipalities. Nevertheless, towns such as Innisfil, Ont. – not far from Toronto – continue to partner with the company on projects, such as an alternative transit service.

At the moment, Uber is the most toxic company on the planet. City officials, educational institutions and other businesses really should think twice before doing deals with the company lest some of that toxicity rubs off on them.

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