So this happened.
The battle over Houston’s taxi rules moved Thursday from the streets to cyberspace, reflecting ongoing tension between an aggressive newcomer and a city government determined to proceed cautiously.
Thousands of email messages urging elected leaders to allow the ridesharing service Uber into Houston slowed city servers and led City Attorney David Feldman to ask that the company stop the online onslaught. A similar service trying to operate in Houston, Lyft, stayed on the sidelines of the latest dispute.
“The excessive number of emails has gone unabated, to the point that it has become harassing in nature and arguably unlawful,” Feldman wrote in a letter to Robert Miller, Uber’s Houston-based attorney.
Uber started an online petition Monday, asking people to show their support. Each signature sent an automated letter via email to 23 city officials. As of 4 p.m. Thursday, more than 9,900 people had signed the petition.
The deluge left the city in the odd position of telling Uber to stop bothering it with messages from its own residents and voters. Law professors said the demand was questionable.
“I can’t think of a law that (the email deluge) is infringing,” said Jacqueline Lipton, co-director of the Institute for Intellectual Property and Information Law at the University of Houston. “Most harassment laws contain a real and not imagined threat.”
Uber posted Feldman’s letter online Thursday, accompanied by the company’s vow not to give up on entering the Houston market.
“All of the people who have signed this petition with the intention of communicating with their elected representatives should have their voice heard,” Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian said.
You can see where Uber posted Feldman’s email, plus a link to the petition, here. This was a dumb thing for Feldman to do. It’s never a good idea for public officials to tell the public to butt out of their business. He has no legal grounds for it, and it just sounds terrible. I don’t know what he was thinking when he sent that.
That said, there is a message that perhaps Uber needs to hear, and Mayor Parker delivered it in a more appropriate way:
To those who want Uber: the process is working w/ all deliberate speed. Regulation takes time. Crashing city inboxes doesn't speed it up.-A
— Annise Parker (@AnniseParker) February 27, 2014
The people who want Uber aren’t the only people the city needs to hear from. Everyone with a stake in this needs to have a chance to be heard, and not all of them are in a position to do so by entering their name on a webform and clicking Submit. It does take time to revise and update regulations, and I for one would rather the city take that time to get it right. By all means, Uber fans, sign the petition and contact the Mayor and your Council members by whatever valid means you want, but let’s have some reasonable expectations about the process and its duration. We’ll get there when we get there, which right now looks like the end of March or the beginning of April.