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A California lawmaker wants to hold ride-hailing companies accountable after a Washington Post investigation exposed that Uber went to great lengths to avoid liability for passengers' reports of sexual assault and harassment. 

Lorena Gonzalez, a Democratic state assemblywoman representing San Diego, tells me in an interview that she’s now drafting legislation that would ensure Uber and Lyft properly investigate claims of sexual assault and harassment. 

Gonzalez is considering mandatory reporting requirements for allegations of sexual assault after my colleague Greg Bensinger found Uber's internal investigators are forbidden to share them with law enforcement or other ride-hailing companies. 

If a customer reports a crime, Gonzalez told me, it must be properly investigated. There does need to be a responsibility to truly investigate,” Gonzalez told me. “That's clearly not happening.” 

Gonzalez's plan to introduce legislation, likely in December, is just the latest sign that lawmakers are growing fed up with technology companies' excuse that they're just digital platforms -- and not responsible for the real-world problems that arise when people abuse their services.

Uber and Lyft have perfected this defense: They frequently argue that they don't employ the drivers -- but serve simply as the tech provider that connects them with rides -- so they can't be held accountable for their actions. 

But Gonzalez says that if the companies want to take credit for creating a new way for consumers to travel, they also have to take the blame if people's safety is at risk. 

“They're trying to have it both ways,” she said. “They're trying to suggest that they're creating this safe easy way for people to get around, but they want no liability when it comes to anything, whether it's work or pay or the dangers they're putting workers in or the dangers they're putting customers in.” Gonzalez is also considering requiring background checks of drivers to include finger prints. 

Uber announced this morning it was rolling out a suite of new safety features amid the increased public scrutiny, including a new feature in its app which would allow customers to report uncomfortable situations like erratic driving and invasive questioning, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui reports

“The core principle for us here is, underreporting is a big issue in every industry and we want to be able to help with that,” Sachin Kansal, Uber’s head of safety products, said in an interview. “If a user has a bad experience, we want to hear about that.”

Though Greg's investigation primarily focused on Uber customers who reported sexual assault and harassment at the hands of their drivers, Gonzalez says she's also talked to drivers who have experienced sexual harassment while working for the companies. Any legislation she introduces will include protections for both drivers and customers. 

Uber told Greg that it doesn't report its findings with background check firms, law enforcement, or other ride-sharing businesses because it wants to be “survivor-centric.” One executive told Greg that a survivor should be able to decide if they want to report their story to law enforcement. 

“At the end of the day, we’re not the judge and jury to determine whether a crime has occurred,” Tracey Breeden, Uber’s global head of women’s safety, told Greg. “We’re here to gather information, make a business decision. We’re not law enforcement.”

Gonzalez, who has been leading the charge in California to require gig economy companies to make drivers their employees, says that change would give Uber and Lyft far greater liability for crimes that occur during rides. A bill she introduced requiring companies to reclassify workers essential to their business as employees — known as AB5 — was signed into law earlier this month. 

However, Uber and Lyft are planning to fight the law. Uber has said it will not automatically reclassify its drivers as employees when the law takes effect next year because they are not essential to its business.

Given this broader dispute, Gonzalez says that California needs an additional law on the books specifically addressing sexual harassment and assault at ride-hailing companies to ensure riders and drivers are protected. 

The concerns about the companies' handling of sexual harassment have also extended to Washington, where Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is stepping up his oversight of the companies. He sent letters to both Uber and Lyft yesterday requesting information about their driver review policies. Blumenthal specifically said he was concerned about sexual harassment and assault, Greg reports. 

Blumenthal told Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi that he was “alarmed by Uber’s public statements about this issue, which indicate a brazenly careless attitude about your responsibility to your customers.” 

A former Uber employee shared what it is like to investigate complaints of sexual assault and harassment — and what happens afterward. (Greg Bensinger, Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: The release of the rough transcript of President Trump's call with his Ukranian counterpart has revived a conspiracy theory focused on the California cybersecurity company CrowdStrike, which exposed Russian breaches of the Democratic Party's computers in 2016, my colleagues Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell and Ellen Nakashima write

Right-wing corners of the Internet celebrated Trump's mention of the company in the July call. “CROWDSTRIKE IS BACK ON THE MENU BOYS,” said one message on the Reddit's “the_donald,” a pro-Trump message board. In another Reddit thread, a person wrote, “Trump just put ‘Ukrainian CrowdStrike’ into the consciousness and conversation of every normie that is following this story.”

The vilification of Crowdstrike reflects how misinformation evolves in a complex media environment, "mixing fact with innuendo before ultimately reaching the president — owner of the world’s loudest megaphone," my colleagues write. 

“This is insane,” Robert Johnston, CEO of Adlumin and a former CrowdStrike investigator who worked on the probe into the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers, told my colleagues. “This is absolute babbling to the president of Ukraine. It’s hard to finger exactly which conspiracy theory he’s subscribing to. But none of them have any grounding in reality.”

Trump has come to think the DNC server hacked by Russian intelligence agents in 2016 may have been hidden in Ukraine, people familiar with the president’s thinking told my colleagues. It isn't the first time Trump has embraced a conspiracy theory, but it wasn’t immediately clear how he reached that conclusion about the DNC server or how that would even have been physically possible, my colleagues note. 

NIBBLES: The Justice Department plans to launch its own antitrust investigation into Facebook’s business practices, David McLaughlin at Bloomberg News reports. The new investigation will run parallel to one already launched by the Federal Trade Commission, signaling a growing turf war between the two agencies tasked with overseeing antitrust law in the United States.

Originally the Justice Department and the FTC agreed to divide antitrust investigations, with the Justice Department taking Apple and Google and the FTC looking into Amazon and Facebook. But Attorney General William P. Barr pushed to retain some oversight of Facebook and may make a similar play for Amazon, David reports.

While sources say the Justice Department will focus on different aspects of Facebook’s business from the FTC, the power grab hasn’t been well received. FTC Chairman Joe Simons wrote a letter to the Justice Department about the issues, sources tell David. Simons acknowledged potential disagreements between the two agencies in a Senate hearing last week. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

BYTES: Amazon is adding Alexa to everything from a ring to glasses, my colleagues Heather Kelly and Jay Greene report. The new devices will test whether customers are ready to trust Amazon with their privacy. 

Amazon senior vice president for devices Dave Limp spent the first 10 minutes of his presentation at Amazon's fall product event describing the company's privacy features — signaling how the issue is increasingly top of mind for tech companies. 

Amazon will now allow users to delete recordings on a rolling basis in addition to a recently introduced tool that allows users to activate deletion through voice commands. Users will also be able to ask Alexa what the device heard and why it took specific actions, Heather and Jay report. 

Amazon has also improved the accuracy of detecting when users say “Alexa” to wake the device to hear commands by 50 percent, reducing the number of recordings captured by Alexa, Limp said.

Users will have to opt in for the new privacy feature, however, which has drawn some criticism.

My colleague Geoffrey Fowler said:

 

Amazon's continued push into products for children could also raise alarm among privacy advocates. The company announced it would introduce a messaging app for kids, my colleagues report. Consumer groups accused Amazon of violating federal privacy protections for children by collecting voice recordings on the Echo Dot Kids Edition earlier this year. 

The changes follow a number of privacy gaffes for the company, including a Bloomberg News report earlier that year that Amazon gave contractors access to the Alexa recordings — some of which held personal information — without users' knowledge. Amazon also retains transcripts of Alexa requests after audio files are deleted, the company admitted to Congress in July

RANT AND RAVE

Twitter greeted the announcement of Amazon's new Echo Loop, an Alexa-enabled ring, with a mix of confusion and curiosity.

CNET's Bridget Carey:

Users had differing ideas on how to incorporate the ring into your wardrobe. My colleague Heather Kelly:

The Verge's Dieter Bohn called it the "nerdiest class ring ever."

PUBLIC CLOUD

-- The Federal Trade Commission is suing one of the nation’s biggest online dating sites for playing with the heartstrings — and purse strings — of users. The FTC sued Match.com, whose parent company also owns Tinder and OkCupid, for allegedly duping users into upgrading to paid subscriptions to access messages from matches that the company knew were from scammers.

Between June 2016 to May 2018, Match.com reported that nearly half a million customers subscribed to its paid services after receiving an advertisement touting a match with a fraudulent profile, which make up as much as 30 percent of its users, the FTC claims. The FTC is also alleging the company used deceptive marketing practices by promising users a free six-month subscription and by not disclosing all the requirements for redeeming the subscription.

“Online dating services obviously shouldn’t be using romance scammers as a way to fatten their bottom line,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Match Group said on its website that the lawsuit is based on “completely meritless allegations supported by consciously misleading figures.” The company reports that it catches and neutralizes 96 percent of improper accounts within a day. The FTC initially offered to resolve its claims with a consent order mandating certain changes in the company's business practices, as well as a payment in the amount of $60 million, but no resolution was reached.

-- Today a coalition of 39 organizations and individuals sent an open letter to Congress encouraging lawmakers to create “appropriate safeguards” for police use of facial recognition technology instead of banning its use. 

“Facial recognition technology performs significantly better than people tasked with the same responsibilities,” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation Vice President Daniel Castro said in a statement. “Bans on facial recognition technology put improvements in community safety in a standstill, blocking advancements that would improve both public security and law enforcement oversight.”

In addition to ITIF, other signatories included the National Police Foundation and the tech lobbying group Computing Technology Industry Association.

— More news from the public sector:

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At a hearing, politicians spar over vaping's lax enforcement, while Juul and other e-cigarette makers face a growing backlash.
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PRIVATE CLOUD

— News from the private sector:

Amazon’s Rekognition software is controversial and Amazon has a lot at stake
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Wojcicki said the news media is likely to cover controversial content regardless of whether it's taken down, giving context to understand it.
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CEO says Oculus Quest VR is the path forward.
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Politics
An anonymous Wikipedia editor raced to remove dubious claims as the former vice president’s son was caught up in a national political crisis.
Isaac Stanley-Becker
#TRENDING

—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

An Instagram community of “doll pages” lets women find valuable information about body-sculpting journeys.
The New York Times
Editors in Los Angeles reported being unable to reboot their computers on Monday evening, an issue that software maker Avid says it's looking into.
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@MENTIONS
  • Juul Labs CEO and cofounder Kevin Burns is stepping down, according to a press release published on the company’s websiteK.C. Crosthwaite, who previously served as the chief growth officer at Altria Group, will take his place.
  • EBay Inc. Chief Executive Devin Wenig has left the company, the Wall Street Journal reports. EBay said Chief Financial Officer Scott Schenkel will serve as CEO on an interim basis.
CHECK-INS

— Today:

  • The House Science Committe will host a hearing on "Online Imposters and Disinformation" Thursday at 2 p.m.
  • Oculus Connect 6 will be held at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in California

— Coming up:

  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host a hearing to discuss securing America's wireless future and the deployment of 5G communications on Friday at 9:30 am.
  • TechCrunch Disrupt SF will take place Oct 2 - Oct 4.