Last week, as Uber was facing wide public criticism for an executive's comments as well as reports that a New York employee used the company's internal tools to track a journalist, one voice has been all but absent: the transit giant's biggest rival, Lyft.
Lyft entered the marketplace in 2012 to compete with Uber and for the last year the companies' corporate dogfighting and controversial recruiting tactics have been well documented. This August CNN Money reported that Uber ordered and canceled roughly 5,000 Lyft rides in order to hurt driver availability during a recruiting push. That same week, an Uber representative alleged to the New York Times that Lyft was engaged in similarly ruthless behavior. "Lyft's claims against Uber are baseless and simply untrue. Furthermore, Lyft's own drivers and employees, including one of Lyft's founders, have canceled 12,900 trips on Uber," the spokesperson said.
One reason for Lyft's silence: They appear to have had one of the same problems as Uber — wide access for employees to customer data (though the company says it's never encountered or caught any employee mishandling user information). Lyft spokesman Erin Simpson told BuzzFeed News that the company has in the past week created tiers of access and permissions so that employees can only access the information they need in order to do their jobs. According to Simpson, the data isn't just restricted by teams or individuals but also by different tiers or layers of data.
Simpson said the public silence was simply a matter of policy — Lyft has historically only commented on issues with its biggest rival when it feels its own drivers have been affected by Uber policies or business practices. When asked why Lyft users weren't informed last week when the company changed its internal privacy policies, Simpson told BuzzFeed News that it has never previously made public statements about purely operational back-end technological changes. As far as attacking Uber's business practices, Simpson said the company chose not to engage, given that the issue involved private citizens outside of Lyft. "I felt it would be insensitive to comment because those circumstances affected real people. We're focused on our own unique values which speak for themselves," she said.
That said, Lyft is quietly capitalizing on Uber's scandal. The past week's privacy concerns have moved some users to delete Uber's app (the app tracking site App Annie says that Uber's download rank has fallen from 24th to 41st since just last week) and consider moving to one of its seemingly more scrupulous rival services, like Lyft. And Simpson told BuzzFeed News that while they wouldn't share numbers, Lyft has seen a sizable influx of new users over the past seven days, making last week its best week ever.
But while Lyft has managed to avoid Uber levels of controversy, the rival service has previously butted heads with riders, drivers, and legislators just as Uber has.
In its attempt to enter the New York City market, Lyft clashed frequently with the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission as well as New York State lawmakers. In July, the transit company tried to launch in New York City without full state approval, prompting the New York Attorney General's Chief of Staff Micah Lasher to slam Lyft's co-founder on Twitter for the company's business practices:
While it's been reported far less than Uber, Lyft has also clashed with its drivers. In September Lyft canceled its luxury service and lowered prices by 10% in Los Angeles, causing drivers to protest. Vice reported last month that Lyft drivers were quitting in droves as a result of the cuts and, in some extreme instances, even burning their fuzzy pink Lyft mustaches. From the Vice report:
Gone are the smiling, friendly, and competent Lyft drivers of last summer. As these drivers have seen their compensation go from a guaranteed minimum of $18 per hour to a fare rate of $1.10 per mile and $0.21 per minute (when they can even get a fare; one of their complaints is that there's an overabundance of cars on the road), those with better moneymaking options have moved on to other work while the holdouts and new, completely unvetted hires are left to fight over scraps.
Similar to Uber, Lyft has also had documented legal troubles with drivers. In June, NBC San Francisco's investigative unit obtained video footage allegedly showing a Lyft driver assaulting a pedestrian while off-duty for Lyft. Valleywag reported in July that a Lyft driver asked for the number of a rider and allegedly stalked the rider incessantly.
While all of these events are concerning, they seem to represent the types of growing pains that large on-demand service apps have to go through while they navigate entry into new markets. Legislative battles, hiring untrustworthy employees, and clashes with drivers over fluctuating pricing models seem to be symptoms of having to scale a business fast — at times, perhaps recklessly so.
But then there is the issue of user privacy, which, according to Liz Gannes at Re/code, also bears similarities to Uber. In a post from last week, Gannes notes multiple instances where Lyft pulled up her trip logs without her permission:
For the record, Uber has never presented my personal data to me. But I can recall multiple times when an executive from Lyft, a rival service, punched up my trip log and told me about it. After my very first trip with Lyft, one executive told me the name of the driver who brought me to the cafe where we met.
Asked about the company's privacy protocol this week, a Lyft spokeswoman said she does have tools to access journalists' accounts, but she has never used them unless the person is present and has given permission. She said she would look into earlier policies, but has not yet replied to multiple follow-ups.
Last Tuesday, when BuzzFeed News asked Lyft if it had any privacy policies in place that regulate whether staffers can go into accounts of riders and if there were any specific policies regarding journalists a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the company wasn't commenting on the issue.
"One thing that's significantly different from [Gannes'] article is that as the leader of the comms team, I previously had access to user data, but now, with these changes, I now have no access to user data, since my role in comms doesn't require me to access user information," Simpson said.
While Simpson said to BuzzFeed News that the policy is a "proactive" approach to privacy as the company grows quickly, she also noted that it would be fair to say the decision to change internal policies stemmed from conversations that progressed based on the public reports on Uber from last week.
But quiet privacy changes aside, the company has done little to publicly distance itself from its rival's tactics, though Simpson told BuzzFeed News via email that "regarding the Uber news last week, it goes without saying that we're a very different company."
Still, unlike Gett, which denounced Uber and its business practices in a letter last week, Lyft has refused to pile on to its rival. There are multiple ways to interpret this kind of silence — that Lyft, a company that has marketed itself as the friendly, scrupulous alternative Uber, has decided to take the high road, benefitting from Uber's negative PR and staying out of the fray to foster goodwill and add new users. Or perhaps it's as Gannes suggests in the headline of her post from last week: "It's Not Just Uber: Tech Companies Snooping on Users Is All Too Common."
Though Lyft presents itself as the anti-Uber ("maybe you're picking up your best friend," a quote from the Today show on Lyft's press page reads), the similarities between Uber's UberX offering and Lyft are striking, down to the price points. Uber New York General Manager Josh Mohrer (who is currently under investigation by the company after reports that he tracked a BuzzFeed reporter) noted the similarities in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
"We've been at this for over three years. A new entrant which is doing something very similar to us is going to be at a disadvantage, especially that is priced exactly the same as us," he said. "The liquidity advantage we have is very large and those pickup times would be two minutes and they'll be reliable all the time; we hold the reliability value above all else."
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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