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FILE - In this file photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, a woman walks past the company logo of the internet car service, Uber, in San Francisco, USA. Uber’s chief executive ordered an urgent investigation Monday Feb. 20, 2017, into a sexual harassment claim made by a female engineer who alleged her prospects at the company evaporated after she complained about advances from her boss. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, FILE)

Uber shifts policy for alleged sexual misconduct on service

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By MICHAEL LIEDTKE, AP Technology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Uber's ride-hailing service will give its U.S. passengers and drivers more leeway to pursue claims of sexual misconduct, its latest attempt to shed its reputation for brushing aside bad behavior.

The shift announced Tuesday will allow riders and drivers to file allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment in courts and mediation, rather than being locked into an arbitration hearing.

The San Francisco company is also scrapping a policy requiring all settlements of sexual misconduct to be kept confidential, giving victims the choice of whether they want to make their allegations public.

It's a conciliatory step from CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. He was hired last August amid a wave of revelations and allegations about rampant sexual harassment in Uber's workforce, a cover-up of a massive data breach, dirty tricks and stolen trade secrets.

Khosrowshahi has vowed to "do the right thing," repair the damage from previous missteps and lure back alienated riders who defected to rivals such as Lyft.

The changes governing sexual misconduct come a month after Uber announced it will do criminal background checks on its U.S. drivers annually and add a 911 button for summoning help in emergencies. It's an effort to reassure its riders and address concerns that it hadn't done enough to keep crooks from using its service to prey on potential victims.

Giving victims of sexual assault or perceived sexual harassment more options sends an important message that Uber is taking the issue more seriously, said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for Raliance, a coalition of groups working with Uber to prevent sexual abuse on its service.

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It may also spur more complaints. For example, Houser said riders may now be more emboldened to report inappropriate behavior, such as when a driver asks them out for a date.

"You want people to report lower level infractions so you can nip them in the bud before they become bigger problems," she said.

By the end of the year, Uber will also start to publicly report incidents of alleged sexual misconduct in hopes of establishing more transparency about the issue throughout the ride-hailing and traditional taxi industries.

"We think the numbers are going to be disturbing," said Tony West, a former government prosecutor during the Obama administration who became Uber's chief legal officer after Khosrowshahi took over.

Jeanne Christensen, a lawyer representing at least 14 women suing Uber in the U.S. over sexual assault allegations, congratulated the company for getting rid of required arbitration, which she said "will begin a process to reduce future suffering by women passengers."

But she said in a written statement Tuesday that Uber continues to fight against class-action status for the women, showing it is "not fully committed to meaningful change" because victims are more likely to pursue claims as part of a group.

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Auto Writer Tom Krisher contributed to this report from Detroit.

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