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U.S. entrepreneur considered suing Uber over tracking activities

An illustration picture shows the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign
A San Francisco Bay Area entrepreneur and author whose location in an Uber vehicle was allegedly broadcast to a roomful of party-goers without his permission considered legal action against the company and consulted an attorney, he said on Wednesday.

Peter Sims said he ultimately decided against suing because of time commitments. But his situation highlights potential liabilities at a time when Uber has drawn fire over allegations that it targeted journalists.

On Friday, Uber executive Emil Michael told journalists that Uber should consider hiring researchers to examine and disclose activities of media critics, according to BuzzFeed. He singled out Pando Daily editor Sarah Lacy, saying researchers would be able to prove “a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.”

Uber’s terms of service include a “very robust” arbitration clause that would make it difficult for any individual customer to bring a lawsuit in court, said Ira Rothken, a plaintiff attorney who has litigated against tech companies.

An Uber spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the company’s liability.

A more serious threat for Uber would be if a state attorney general or the U.S. Federal Trade Commission decided to investigate, Rothken said.

The New York’s attorney general office declined to comment on whether it is considering investigating Uber’s privacy practices. Connecticut’s attorney general said the office had not received complaints related to Uber and privacy and is not looking into anything concerning the company. A spokesman for California’s attorney general said he could not confirm or deny investigations.

A spokesman for the FTC declined to comment.

If a way to sidestep the arbitration clause emerges and if someone can prove their location information was distributed to a third party, one avenue could be to sue under a California law forbidding disclosure of such data to third parties without the rider’s written permission, said Chicago plaintiff lawyer Jay Edelson.

“In addition to a serious breach of business ethics, Uber could potentially be running afoul of federal and criminal law, ” Edelson said.

On Tuesday, Uber apologized for Michael’s comments.

But on Wednesday, actor and Uber investor Ashton Kutcher escalated the matter, tweeting, “What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist? @pando @TechCrunch @Uber”

Pando editorial director Paul Carr said the company was not considering legal action.

“Clearly the comment was revolting and unforgivable, ” he wrote in an email. “But we have to focus on doing our jobs right now rather than suing the idiot bro from ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’”

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