Uber will allow victims of sexual assault and harassment to sue the company

Uber will stop forcing women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted by drivers to resolve claims in secret out of court, ending a controversial practice that critics said silenced victims.

Under a new policy announced Tuesday, Uber said it would allow US riders and drivers to file allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment in courts and mediation instead of being locked into arbitration, a private process that often results in confidentiality agreements.

The San Francisco company also said it would not require settlements of sexual misconduct to be kept confidential. The changes could further help female drivers who have previously accused the company of failing them when they are assaulted by passengers.

It is a significant move that could have ripple effects in Silicon Valley and other industries, given the increasing recognition of harms caused by legal agreements that protect perpetrators and serial harassers by forcing whistleblowers and victims of abuse to stay silent. Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer whose viral story of sexual harassment sparked a reckoning in the tech industry, has been outspoken about arbitration, recently detailing her campaign to push for reforms in an interview with the Guardian.

The new rules also mark a conciliatory step made by the Uber chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi. He was hired last August amid a wave of revelations and allegations about rampant sexual harassment in its workforce, a cover-up of a massive data breach, dirty tricks and stolen trade secrets.

Khosrowshahi has launched a campaign to “do the right thing” to repair the damage left by Uber’s previous regime and lure back alienated riders who defected to rivals such as Lyft.

The changes governing sexual misconduct come a month after Uber announced it will do criminal background checks on its US drivers annually and add a 911 button for summoning help in emergencies. They are an effort to reassure its riders and address concerns that it had not done enough to keep criminals from using its service to prey on potential victims.

Giving victims of sexual assault or perceived sexual harassment more options sends an important message that Uber is taking the issue more seriously, said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for Raliance, a coalition of groups working with Uber to prevent sexual abuse on its service.

It may also spur more complaints. Houser said riders may now be more emboldened to report inappropriate behaviour, such as when a driver asks them out for a date.

“You want people to report lower-level infractions so you can nip them in the bud before they become bigger problems,” she said.

By the end of the year, Uber will also start to publicly report incidents of alleged sexual misconduct in hopes of establishing more transparency about the issue throughout the ride-hailing and traditional taxi industries.

“We think the numbers are going to be disturbing,” said Tony West, a former government prosecutor during the Obama administration who became Uber’s chief legal officer after Khosrowshahi took over.

An Uber spokesperson confirmed that the company would, however, continue to try and force arbitration in a class action case filed by alleged sexual assault victims. Although the women could now file individual claims in court, Uber still intends to fight to block them from bringing a case together and alleging a pattern of problems.

“Uber has made a critical step in this direction, but preventing victims from proceeding together, on a class basis, shows that Uber is not fully committed to meaningful change,” Jeanne M Christensen, one of the class-action attorneys, said in an email. “Victims are more likely to come forward knowing they can proceed as a group.”