Imagine you want to expand your business in a new city, encounter some pushback and suddenly get a letter from the city attorney ordering you to stop contacting government officials about your business interests. That has happened to Uber, a mobile car/taxi ordering service, in Houston Tx.
Uber has tangled in numerous cities with competitors like taxi and limousine services, and has challenged potentially outdated laws that regulate them but may not envisage a technology-based business plan for urban transportation that links potential customers to registered drivers.
In Houston, the legal wrangling has reached the point where the city attorney has issued a “cease and desist” order to Uber to stop attempting to organize citizens to email government officials about this issue.
This is not the first time officials or institutions have tried to curb the public’s right to protest. Developers found that SLAPP suits could intimidate citizens from opposing projects until states starting to pass anti-SLAPP lawsuit legislation. Readers will remember attempts last summer by North Carolina’s legislature to ban protest petitions against development.
But the Feb. 26, 2014 letter from Houston City Attorney David Feldman to Uber’s lawyer is chilling to read: “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.”
Uber describes itself as evolving the way the world moves. It connects riders to drivers through its apps and claims to make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From its founding in 2009, it has launches in over 70 cities today.
As the website Techdirt notes: “Uber had set up a petition for Houston residents, emailing city officials of their support for allowing Uber in that city. In response to this, the city of Houston issued a cease-and-desist, (according to Uber.com) effectively telling Uber to stop asking Houston residents to contact their own elected government about this issues any more.”
It seems amazing that city officials can contend that it is a form of citizen harassment or illegal for citizens to contact their own elected officials. It’s the sort of maneuver that is bound to backfire on the city, attract much more attention to the issue and more emails as well. Live and learn.