NEW DELHI — Transportation officials in India’s capital banned the online car service Uber on Monday after one of its drivers was arrested on suspicion of raping a passenger.
The move was a blow for Uber in the huge Indian market, as well as another public-relations headache.
The San Francisco-based company, which operates in 45 countries, has come under fire for what some consider a lax attitude toward protecting the private data of its customers and ensuring passenger safety.
In New Delhi, protesters on Monday demanded greater protections for women as police called in an Uber official for questioning about the company’s screening methods, saying it had not taken simple security measures, such as fingerprinting the accused cabdriver or conducting a background check.
Shiv Kumar Yadav, 32, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of sexually assaulting a passenger who was on her way home from a party the previous night. Police said he was acquitted of rape charges in a 2011 incident.
In a statement, the Delhi Transport Department condemned the “unfortunate and heinous crime,” banning Uber from operating in the city. The service continues in several other major cities in India.
The alleged rape came as a chilling reminder of Delhi’s continued inability to provide safe commuting options for women at night — even after the fatal gang rape of a woman aboard a moving bus two years ago.
Uber said in a statement Sunday that safety was its top “priority.”
“What happened over the weekend in New Delhi is horrific,” the statement said. “Our entire team’s hearts go out to the victim of this despicable crime.”
Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, stopped short of acknowledging systemic company failings. A statement by Kalanick deflected some of the blame onto India’s licensing norms, saying Uber will “work with the government to establish clear background checks currently absent in their commercial transportation licensing programs.”
Police said their investigation has revealed shortcomings in the company’s Indian operations, which apparently were so bare-bones that investigators were unable to locate the phone number or address of Uber’s India office on the company’s Web site when the rape complaint was made.
A report in the newspaper Indian Express said police had to finally download the Uber application and book a cab to locate the Gurgaon address of the company.
Uber has been under scrutiny almost since its 2009 inception. Traditional cab companies deem it an illegal taxi service. Despite such opposition, Uber has managed to expand aggressively throughout the United States, as well as globally since opening in Paris in 2011. But there have been growing pains overseas, in addition to criticism at home: On Monday, a Dutch court banned Uber from taking bookings on its smartphone app, threatening stiff fines for violations.
Now critics are asking whether the company grew too quickly and jeopardized passenger safety in favor of expansion.
Last month, meanwhile, an Uber executive suggested he would pay to dig up information on the personal lives of journalists writing negative things about Uber, a comment that appeared to target a Silicon Valley writer who had been chronicling the sexual misconduct of Uber drivers in the United States.
The Indian woman who was allegedly assaulted, an unidentified 27-year-old working at a tax consulting firm in a New Delhi suburb, booked the Uber cab through her cellphone app late Friday to return home, police said. The driver took the woman to a deserted area and raped her, authorities said. She also has accused him of punching and slapping her.
When he finally dropped her at home, authorities said, he threatened to come back and kill her if she went to the police. But the woman managed to take a picture of the car with her cellphone after getting out of the vehicle.
Reports of the alleged attack shocked many Indians who have come to rely on cabs booked through companies that use GPS trackers or through smartphone applications. The option is widely regarded as safer than public transportation because the passenger’s cab location can be tracked in real time.
“Sleek App, sleeker cars till one ride opens a cab of worms,” read a headline in the Indian Express on Monday.
Kunal Lalani, president of the Association of Radio Taxis in India, said the incident is likely to affect the country’s burgeoning business of private cabs. Uber has been operating in India since last year.
“Certainly there will be an immediate impact on the business and create trust deficit,” Lalani said.
Protesters angry about yet another high-profile case of violence against women demonstrated outside a police station in New Delhi on Monday.
“We need to invest in safe public transport and services for women. In its absence, we are relying on several private cab companies without knowing who is monitoring or regulating them,” said Suneeta Dhar, head of Jagori, a nonprofit organization that works with women.
For many women in the city, the incident is a wake-up call even though they already take precautions when using a private cab.
“I take the vehicle number and driver’s number beforehand and pass it on to my family,” said Sonam Vardhan, 26, who works with an e-commerce company and commutes by private cabs every day.
Jalees Andrabi contributed to this report.