BUSINESS

Why Uber Is Suing The City Of Houston

04/29/2015 01:59 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015

Uber is once again suing to keep its secrets.

The ride-hailing service filed suit in Houston last week to block the release of public records that would reveal how many drivers it has licensed in the city, who they are and how the company operates in Texas, according to a court documents obtained by The Huffington Post.

Reporters from Al Jazeera America and the Houston Chronicle requested the documents earlier this year as Uber began lobbying for a bill that would allow it to work throughout the state, expanding its reach to 27 million potential customers. The records could shed light on how Uber, which has faced fierce opposition in many new markets, brokers deals in different cities and states to skirt regulations that apply to taxi and limo drivers. They would also show how many of the Uber drivers in Houston were licensed by the city.

Uber argued against the release of those records, insisting that the information constituted trade secrets and would give an edge to smaller rivals such as Lyft and Sidecar.

"Uber is a private company and as such, information about driver partners is considered confidential and proprietary," Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock told HuffPost in an email.

On April 1, the state attorney general ruled against Uber in favor of making the documents public. Weeks later, the Travis County District Court granted Uber a temporary order to bar Houston officials from releasing the records as the company prepared to sue the city to keep the information secret.

Representatives for Uber will appear in court on Thursday for the company's first hearing since the order was issued.

“Nobody is asking for profit margins or anything like that. It’s very basic information,” E. Tammy Kim, the Al Jazeera reporter who requested the documents, told HuffPost on Wednesday. “There’s a public safety concern, in that the whole rationale for a city being able to regulate vehicles for hire is so the public can know who’s on the road.”

Because the suit was filed against the city, neither news outlet will be represented in court.

A clause in the Texas Public Information Act allows companies to review requests related to them before documents are released. In theory, this is to ensure that state officials don’t publicize trade secrets that could damage a firm. For the infamously litigious Uber, the law offers an opportunity to try and quash attempts to peer inside the $40 billion company.

The Texas attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

It's unclear whether Uber has used this tactic in other cities before. Last September, the company sued Columbus, Ohio, to prevent the city from releasing a copy of an insurance policy submitted in Uber's licensing application.

Uber is fighting to keep its Texas drivers free of the same strict city-by-city licensing and inspection regulations that apply to taxis and limos. House Bill 2440 -- a Texas bill that would establish statewide standards for transportation network companies like Uber and its smaller rivals Lyft and Sidecar -- would pre-empt those local laws. Ten states, including California, Virginia and Illinois, have already passed nearly identical laws, and similar legislation is pending in 27 states, according to Kim's reporting for Al Jazeera.

Fears over Uber’s ability to police its own drivers came to a head earlier this month when Houston police arrested Duncan E. Burton, a driver who allegedly raped an unconscious female passenger and continued to drive for the company for more than two months.

“It is inexcusable that Uber had a driver on the streets and tied to their app who was not registered with the city,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said in a statement at the time.

This story has been updated with a statement from Uber.

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