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St. Paul Caves to Uber, Falling for the Old Proprietary Info Trick

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When Uber "independent contractor" Syed Muzzafar slammed into a young San Francisco family in a crosswalk last New Year's Eve and killed six-year-old Sofia Lin, the company was quick to offer its sympathy.

But just weeks later, when the family filed a wrongful death suit, the app-based taxi-style outfit that hires regular folks to chauffeur washed its hands of the legal mess, claiming it didn't have to insure Muzzafar because he was an independent contractor, not an employee.

Now, as Uber reaches its tendrils into Minnesota, leaving cities to play catch-up on how to regulate the new transportation kid on the block, it's trying to keep info about its drivers private while simultaneously abdicating any culpability when things go bad.

Case in point: St. Paul.

The City Council took up an ordinance intended to regulate the likes of Uber. It wanted to license drivers and force companies to hand over their names, addresses, and phone numbers so that city officials could perform background checks.

A fair enough request, right?

Negative, claimed Uber.

The company argued that such personnel information was "proprietary" and that going public would allow competitors to cherry-pick its work force.

The "proprietary" gambit is a common corporation dodge these days, used to keep secret everything from the chemicals used in fracking to the fees charged by hedge funds.

But since Uber's drivers aren't actually employees -- and might prefer fielding better offers from other firms -- the company's proprietary line seemed dubious.

Uber's customer service would also seem to beg for tighter regulation. The Better Business Bureau has given it an F rating for a landslide of complaints and the company's reluctance to address them. (Uber didn't respond to interview requests.)

Prior to the vote, City Council President Kathy Lantry was confident the new regs would "protect proprietary interests at the same they keep city residents safe."

"People are certainly free to have their own opinions for their own business model," she said. "But there's one over-arching issue when it comes to this: public safety. For this to be a service to the public, first and foremost, we need to make sure that the person being picked up is protected."

Never mind.

By a 5-2 vote, the council approved rules that more closely mirror Minneapolis's, allowing Uber to keep its secrets secret.

Voting against the ordinance were council members Dave Thune and Dan Bostrom.

See also: Twin Cities Cab Drivers Try to Beat Lyft, Uber at Own Game