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Uber dodges 'covert' transport regulators by blocking mobile phones

State transport regulators in Australia have gone undercover in an attempt to fine UberX drivers for ridesharing, but Uber has thwarted these attempts by blocking their mobile phones from accessing the service.

Uber

"Covert" transport officials in Australia have been thwarted from penalising UberX ridesharing drivers, claiming their mobile phones have been blocked by the company.

Department of Transport authorities in Queensland have been conducting what they call "covert activity" to issue UberX drivers with fines for ridesharing, according to internal emails from Department staffers.

While Uber has seen massive success with its taxi and car-hire app, which is now available in more than 200 cities worldwide, the company has come under fire for its UberX ridesharing service. The service has seen major push back from taxi drivers, who claim ridesharing allows unregistered drivers to undercut legitimate car hire and taxi services, posing , while some cities have gone as far as outlawing the service. Uber on the other hand says the service offers consumers greater choice.

According to the internal emails outlining the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads 'covert' scheme, 17 drivers were issued with a total 22 infringement notices (in the period until 12 August 2014), with fines amounting to AU$31,757. The emails, obtained by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, also show frustration that attempts to shut down operations were having little effect.

A spokeswoman from the Department has since confirmed that the figure for fines issued to drivers has climbed to almost ten times the August 2014 figure.

"A 'cease and desist' notice was issued to alternative taxi service operators on 21 May 2014 and is still current," the spokeswoman said. "Already more than AU$260,000 fines have been issued to 95 drivers for either driving without the correct driver authorisation and/or providing a taxi service without a taxi service licence in the past 12 months."

The internal emails reveal the full scope of the Department's attempts to stop UberX drivers. One email, sent in August 2014 by TMR Department staffer Scott Hall, reads:

No covert activity was done today, Uber locked third phone due to PINS [penalty infringement notices] being issued yesterday. Time was spent purchasing new credit cards, activating G-mail accounts and setting up two more phones. These phones are the last ones, will be ordering additional units. Covert activity will re-commence tomorrow.

One week later, another department employee wrote that the penalty operation was not having the desired effect:

There does not appear to be a shortage of drivers available when we request one. It also appears the Uber business is still expanding.
An internal email from Australian transport authorities. Screenshot by Claire Reilly/CNET
Queensland Department of Transport staffers discuss "covert" attempts to request UberX rides in order to issue drivers with fines. Screenshot by Claire Reilly/CNET

A spokeswoman for Uber said the company would not discuss the details of individual users, but confirmed that "riders may be restricted from the platform for any...inappropriate activity". Regarding the legality of UberX in Australia, the spokeswoman said "there are no existing regulations around ridesharing in Australia".

"We are calling on governments to develop sensible, safety-based ridesharing legislation that is in the best interests of consumers, not about protecting incumbent industries from competition," she said.

This is not the first regulatory hurdle Uber has faced in Australia. South of Queensland, the New South Wales Department of Transport has previously stated that , saying "services must be provided in a licensed taxi or hire car, by an appropriately accredited driver" leaving UberX outside the bounds of legal operation.

UberX has also faced opposition in regions as far apart as Spain and Thailand, while reports of unsafe and criminal driver behaviour have led to greater scrutiny of the company's background check process.

CNET has contacted the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads for comment.

Updated on January 15 at 2:50 p.m. AEDT to include comment from Uber.

Updated on January 16 at 11:10 a.m. AEDT to include comment from Queensland'sDepartment of Transport and Main Roads.