Ride-hailing service Uber launched an investigation after a driver reportedly asked a lesbian couple to get out of his car when he saw them kiss in the backseat. Now the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has suspended the driver's taxi license, pending an investigation.
Alex Iovine, 26, and Emma Pichl, 24, were picked up in Brooklyn last weekend after celebrating a friend's birthday at a local beach.
The two were headed to Manhattan to meet another group of friends.
"We were sitting in the two window seats with the middle seat between us," Iovine told CNBC. "At one point we turned to each other and pecked on the lips."
Halfway to their destination, the driver, Ahmad El Boutari, pulled his car over and asked the women to get out of the car. Thinking it was a joke, the couple laughed, until the driver exited the vehicle, opened the passenger door and demanded the couple exit the car. Starting to feel threatened and unsafe, the couple took out their phones and began recording the exchange. (The video was shared widely in the press on Monday.)
In the video Iovine asks why they were being asked to leave.
"It's illegal," the driver said. He added: "You can't do this in the car. It's disrespectful. You aren't allowed to do this."
The couple realized he was reacting to their kiss, and the couple continued to ask why they aren't allowed to kiss.
"It's not illegal to kiss in New York," Iovine told CNBC. "We leaned in for a peck."
The incident was reported by both the couple and the driver.
CNBC could not reach the driver for comment.
According to Uber Community Guidelines under a section titled, "Give riders and drivers some personal space," passengers agree to the following upon entering the vehicle:
"Don't touch or flirt with other people in the car. As a reminder, Uber has a no-sex rule. That's no sexual conduct between drivers and riders, no matter what."
Under reasons stated by Uber for riders losing access to Uber is, "Physical contact with the driver or fellow riders. As our community guidelines make clear, you shouldn't touch or flirt with other people in the car."
Iovine said the incident was a clear breach of Uber's Community Guidelines as it relates to discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
Under its guidelines for drivers, Uber says discrimination of any type may result in permanent deactivation of a driver's account. Drivers cannot "refuse to provide services based on characteristics like a person's race, color, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, gender identity, age or any other characteristic protected under relevant federal, state, or local law."
The guidelines also state that "asking overly personal questions, using verbal threats and making comments or gestures that are aggressive, sexual, discriminatory or disrespectful" are not allowed.
Uber did not respond to a question from CNBC as to whether its Community Guidelines on "no contact" were within the driver's right to interpret as supporting his actions and whether the guidelines may need to be revised.
The passengers defended their contact.
"Anyone who knows me knows that I'm respectful and I would never engage in sexual conduct in public," Iovine said. "I think it would be disrespectful to engage in that in someone's Uber, but that is nothing close to what happened here."
The video shows the women saying they are going to call the police and report the driver to Uber. The driver then reached toward the girls and reportedly tried to grab the phone from Pichl. Iovine can be heard shouting, "Get off her phone."
New Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi slammed the driver in an interview with the New York Post on Monday, saying that drivers like the one who kicked the lesbian couple out of his car for kissing "don't belong on Uber."
"This is an open society, and Uber is a platform that is available to anybody regardless of your background, your orientation, and that is sacred to us. It's an unfortunate circumstance, and we will do everything we can for that not to repeat," the Uber CEO was quoted as saying.
Uber's business model is predicated on it not employing any of its drivers. It built its business into a multibillion-dollar giant by reiterating the view that it is a technology company, not a transportation company, and drivers are all independent contractors. California's Supreme Court recently issued a decision that narrowed the definition of independent contractor, but in April a U.S. District court in Philadelphia ruled that drivers are not Uber employees.
"Uber does not tolerate any form of discrimination, and we have reached out to the rider regarding her experience," Uber spokeswoman Susan Hendrick said in a statement shared with CNBC. "We are investigating and will take appropriate action."
Since the incident, Uber has apologized, refunded the couple for their ride and notified them that the driver's access to the app has been removed.
"It's a helpless position, and I hope this sets a precedent to Uber," Iovine said.
Iovine and Pichl suggested the company create some type of profile for drivers, allowing them to identify drivers as LGBT-friendly in order to make passengers feel more comfortable.
Khosrowshahi continues his efforts to clean up the ride-hailing company's image. Uber was No. 2 on the 2018 CNBC Disruptor List amid the new CEO's public-image rehabilitation effort. The company was recently valued at $62 billion. Last month Khosrowshahi committed to closely monitoring driver backgrounds, and allowing riders to get in touch with authorities more quickly and effectively in the event of an emergency.
This incident also comes after Uber changed their policy on claims of sexual misconduct. The company announced it would be rolling back the use of forced arbitration agreements for employees, riders and drivers — giving victims of sexual assault more options.
"My hope is Uber does something to change their policy or prevent this from happening," Iovine said. "I would never want to violate the driver's rights, but protect the riders too and update the policy."
The couple said they have deleted the app and will no longer be using the service.
— By Brandon Gomez, CNBC news associate