Just a few weeks after Uber and Lyft dropped their legal fight to keep Seattle data secret, the two companies now have filed suit to prevent the Port of Seattle from releasing similar data about ridership to and from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
For nearly three years, Uber and Lyft fought a costly court battle with the city of Seattle to keep their ridership data secret.
Then, in September, the companies abruptly dropped the long-running legal challenge, allowing the data to become public. Uber said it “was part of a broader effort to be more transparent with our data and strengthen our relationship with cities, including the City of Seattle.”
The company may want to be more transparent with cities, but it didn’t say anything about ports.
Just a few weeks after Uber and Lyft officially dropped their legal fight against Seattle, the two companies started a new legal battle involving the Port of Seattle, filing suit to prevent the port from releasing similar data about ridership to and from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
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They got a temporary restraining order, and the data is on hold while a King County judge decides if it should be made available to the public.
The city of Seattle spent more than $400,000 on outside lawyers in its case, arguing that the data, about how the companies use public streets, should be publicly available.
That data showed, for instance, that the companies provide more than 91,000 rides on an average day in the Seattle area.
“This is a win for transparency,” City Attorney Pete Holmes said. “I hope they’ll be forthcoming with their data in other jurisdictions.”
With Sea-Tac at least, they have not been forthcoming.
Uber argues that the Port of Seattle data is different because it includes the specific date and time of each ride, making it more potentially useful to the company’s competitors. Nathan Hambley, an Uber spokesman, said it is “sensitive from both a competitive and a privacy standpoint.” He noted that the company has donated money to SharedStreets, a nonprofit working to make it easier to share transportation data.
The companies submit ride data so the port can make sure they’re paying the appropriate fees to operate at Sea-Tac.
Lyft said it was fighting to keep the data secret because it is “much more granular” than the city data and includes drivers’ license-plate numbers.
Uber, Lyft driver wants the data
In the fight over the city data, Uber and Lyft faced high-powered lawyers — city of Seattle attorneys and outside counsel, and lawyers representing The Wall Street Journal, which also sought the data.
In the battle over the port data, Uber and Lyft face just one man, Paul Osborn, a driver for Uber and Lyft. And Osborn is representing himself in court.
“My working theory is that they didn’t want to go against the city again and they thought that it would be much easier to get a precedent set by opposing my request,” Osborn said. The Port of Seattle, in a legal brief, said it had “competing interests” in the case and declined to take a side.
Osborn, 50, began driving for the two companies earlier this year. He’s also a business consultant, with a background in data analysis. He sought the data because he thought it might help him make a little more money driving. If he could figure out when people were using Uber and Lyft the most at Sea-Tac, he might be able to show up at the right times to secure more requests from the company’s algorithmic apps.
Most Uber and Lyft drivers, when they drop a passenger off at Sea-Tac, aren’t allowed to just wait at the airport for a return fare (only drivers with very fuel-efficient cars can use the waiting lot). That means they have to drive back with an empty car, slashing their earnings.
Drivers are sometimes granted a “rematch,” meaning they can pick up a return passenger almost immediately, and avoid the dreaded empty return trip. But they are much more likely to be granted a rematch at busier travel times.
“Rematches are really important for drivers; the data would give an indication of when rematches are most likely,” Osborn said. “You might change your shift in order to be able to maximize the probability of rematches.”
Osborn said he has no plans to sell any conclusions he draws from the data, but a line in Uber’s court filings noting that he seeks the data for “commercial purposes” drew his pique.
“So what?” Osborn said. “Uber is a $120 billion company and it is certainly in this for commercial purposes. This is about getting more information to the driving community.”
Companies predict economic damage if data released
Uber and Lyft didn’t concede the data battle to the city of Seattle out of the blue. The companies have long claimed their ridership data is a “trade secret,” so that even when the data is in the hands of government agencies (like the city and the port), it is exempt from disclosure under the state Public Records Act.
But earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ruled that even if the data is a trade secret, it still must be disclosed unless disclosure would “substantially and irreparably damage” the companies.
At the time, Uber said it would continue to fight to keep the data secret, only to change its mind several months later.
The companies’ new legal arguments over the Sea-Tac data go heavy on the potential damage that could result from releasing it.
Releasing the data, Uber argues in court filings, would cause it to “suffer a substantial and irreparable competitive disadvantage, which could substantially impair its business.”
Lyft argues that releasing the data might cause it to quit operating entirely at the airport.
Lyft also argued that releasing the Seattle data could cause it to leave the Seattle market. The data has been released. Lyft has not left.
And Uber made the same arguments about the Seattle data, word for word, that it now makes about the port data.
Uber in 2016 court filings on the now-released city data: “The information requested has significant economic value, actual and potential, because it is not generally known, and not readily ascertainable, to other persons who would derive economic value from its disclosure.”
Uber in September court filings on the still-secret Sea-Tac data: “The ride data requested has significant economic value, actual and potential, because it is not generally known or readily ascertainable to other persons who would derive economic value and commercial advantage from its disclosure.”
Osborn accuses the companies of “falsely (or disingenuously) predicting catastrophic harm” that never ends up materializing when data is disclosed.
They “have not even attempted to quantify any alleged harm,” he writes in court filings, “and their businesses have grown exponentially in every market where similar data has been released, including Seattle.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to note that drivers are more likely to be granted a “rematch” at the busier travel times. A previous version implied that drivers are only granted a “rematch” at the busiest travel times.