Houston Threatens Uber With Some Legalese Over Email Campaign

There's been a lot of discussion about Uber, the car service that recently launched service in Houston despite the fact that ordinances prevent it from operating legally. The Mayor and City Council have been in discussions on what to do about services like Uber and Lyft that provide an alternative to taxis and limo services. Both allow users to request a car via an app, which also handles payment. The driver is paid electronically.

Some 10,000 Houstonians signed an online petition in support of the service, the most vocal of whom are young, urbanites who are strong supporters of the technological aspects of the service.

What was the city's response?

Apparently, the city is tired of having its inbox filled up with Uber petition signatures because it issued a cease and desist to the folks at Uber asking Uber to stop the flow of petition e-mails to city mailboxes:

From: Feldman, David M. - LGL [mailto:David.Feldman@houstontx.gov] Sent: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 8:46 AM To: Miller, Robert Subject: Uber Cease and Desist

Robert - Please consider this as a formal demand that your client, Uber, cease and desist from transmitting or aiding in the transmission of form e-mails to City officials regarding the adoption of an ordinance to accommodate their enterprise. Despite my informal request to you by telephone on Monday, the excessive number of e-mails has gone unabated, to the point that it has become harassing in nature and arguably unlawful. Failure to cease and desist will be met with appropriate action by the City.

David M. Feldman City Attorney City of Houston

Generally, Uber's services tend to be more reliable than traditional taxis in cities where they are allowed to operate. Cab services are often unreliable at peak hours. Uber and Lyft combat that by increasing fares -- sometimes dramatically -- during those times. This has caused some controversy surrounding the services along with questions relating to how the services handle driver insurance and background checks. Uber was recently sued by the family of a child struck and killed by one of their drivers. They claim that because the driver was not on a call, they were not responsible, as opposed to a taxi driver who must operate a company-authorized vehicle.

Back to the petition. Perhaps I missed something, but I thought this was simply citizens exercising democracy. The fact that a company with a vested interest in those signed petitions is facilitating them being sent is irrelevant. If people want to interact with the city and some web-based service gives them the ability to do so, that is certainly their right.

Letter writing campaigns have been the backbone of grassroots organizations for decades. If the constituency's airwaves can be flooded with paid-for political advertisements and phone lines be clogged with supporters of candidates and ballot initiatives, I'm pretty sure the city mail servers can handle an influx of signed online petitions.

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