The Washington Supreme Court ruled that the government should disclose trade secrets unless doing so would cause substantial and irreparable harm. Researchers want to use the Uber and Lyft data to see if the companies are serving communities of color fairly.
Uber and Lyft’s data on what Seattle neighborhoods they serve — where they pick up and drop off passengers — may be a trade secret, as the companies claim, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can continue to keep it secret, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the state’s Public Records Act allows government documents containing trade secrets to be withheld “only if disclosure would clearly not be in the public interest and would substantially and irreparably damage a person or a vital government interest.”
The information under dispute is not passenger-level data which could raise privacy concerns, but rather data on how often Uber and Lyft drivers serve specific ZIP codes. Proponents of releasing the data argue that it could be used to determine whether the companies are fairly serving all areas of the city.
The case will now be sent back to King County Superior Court to determine whether releasing the specific data would go against the public interest and would “substantially and irreparably” damage the companies.
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The dispute dates back to 2014, when the Seattle City Council passed a law limiting Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services to no more than 150 drivers each in the city. But a successful petition drive backed by the companies led to a deal in which the driver limits were scrapped and, in exchange, the companies agreed to submit quarterly reports on how many rides they were giving, what ZIP codes the rides were serving and other data.
But after the companies submitted their data and the city compiled a report for the City Council, Uber and Lyft said the data was secret and threatened a lawsuit to block its release.
In early 2016, Jeff Kirk, an Austin-based ride-share analyst, filed a public records request for the report, which researchers hoped to analyze for evidence of redlining — to see if communities of color were being fairly served by the companies.
Uber and Lyft filed an injunction to stop the data from being released. A King County Superior Court judge ruled that the companies had to disclose how many drivers they had, but could continue to keep secret the ZIP codes that those rides served.
In 2016, Uber and Lyft were forced to reveal that they had 9,200 drivers in the city. Today, Uber alone has 14,000 drivers in Seattle, according to the Supreme Court.
“This is a business that is conducted solely on the city streets and the taxpayers pay for the streets,” said Michael Ryan, a Seattle assistant city attorney. “We believe that the public has a right to see that information.”
Caleb Weaver, an Uber spokesman, said the company would continue to challenge the release of the data.
“The Washington Supreme Court agreed that the records in question are trade secrets, but disagreed with the standard applied by the trial court,” Weaver said. “We look forward to demonstrating to the trial court again why these trade secrets should be protected from disclosure.”
In her majority opinion Thursday, Justice Debra Stephens cited an academic study that found African-American travelers in Seattle had to wait significantly longer to be picked up by UberX and Lyft drivers.
“Redlining in Seattle has been detected through academic research studies,” Stephens wrote. “While the superior court acknowledged the public interest in data that might evidence redlining, it erroneously concluded that the public could trust the city to adequately police redlining using the zip code reports.
“This conclusion ignores the core policy underlying the Public Records Act under which ‘the people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them.’ ”
In dissent, Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote that Lyft had sufficiently demonstrated that disclosing the ZIP code data would immediately harm the company and that the majority decision “has made it harder for businesses to protect their intellectual property.”
Kirk, the Texas analyst who requested the ride-hailing data, said keeping it secret makes it that much harder to hold the companies accountable.
“This is just one example of dozens, if not hundreds, of instances of Uber and Lyft trying to obstruct access to their data,” Kirk said. “To be clear, this is the exact same data that virtually every city in America requires from taxi companies and have required for upwards of 40 years.”