Delphia co-founder placed on leave after sexual assault allegations from former employee

Delphia, a mobile investment platform, is facing a lawsuit and allegations that its co-founder and CTO Cameron Agius-Westland sexually assaulted and harassed a former employee, according to a complaint filed on Monday and shared exclusively with TechCrunch.

The complaint alleges that on August 17, 2022, Westland “sexually assaulted and harassed Plaintiff for at least 30 minutes, as he rubbed her back and legs in a hot tub in a sexual manner during a work retreat.” The complaint was filed in both the U.S. and Canada.

“Later in the night, Westland whispered in Plaintiff’s ear – ‘what do you say, we should do this, you and I, let’s do this.’ Plaintiff acted like she did not understand or hear him,” the document alleged. “Then at her first opportunity, Plaintiff told everyone she was going to bed, went into her room, and locked the door.” In the complaint, the former employee also alleges that she later received a text from Westland asking “Want to cuddle,” to which she says she did not respond.

The following day, Westland is said in the complaint to have at least partly acknowledged his behavior by sending the Plaintiff and two other colleagues the following message, as shared in a screenshot in the document:

Screenshot provided by Avloni Law (opens in a new window)

After the alleged incident, the Plaintiff was fired in mid-November 2022, after Westland wanted to “change company strategy,” according to the document. She was replaced shortly after by what the former employee’s complaint characterizes as Westland’s “close friend,” Max Cameron, who is now director of community products at Delphia.

Andrew Peek, CEO and co-founder of Delphia, shared a statement with TechCrunch in response to the lawsuit allegations:

Delphia takes the allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Westland very seriously. Delphia has always held itself to the highest standards and, accordingly, we have retained an independent third-party investigator to look into these allegations. Mr. Westland has been placed on a leave of absence pending the investigation. That said, Delphia denies the allegations that the plaintiff in this litigation was terminated for any reason other than the fact that her services were no longer needed. In addition, the person identified as Mr. Westland’s “close friend” works in an entirely different part of the organization and did not take over the plaintiff’s responsibilities.

Delphia closed a $60 million Series A led by Multicoin Capital in June 2022. Other investors in the round include fintech-focused Ribbit Capital, M13, Lattice Ventures and the now-defunct FTX Ventures. In December 2022, Delphia announced its acquisition of Fathom Privacy, a data rights company that aims to provide individuals the ability to own personal application data.

Delphia co-founder placed on leave after sexual assault allegations from former employee by Jacquelyn Melinek originally published on TechCrunch

Lyft sued by drivers, passengers claiming company failing to protect users from assault

Lyft is facing a fresh batch of lawsuits from drivers and passengers who say they were sexually and physically assaulted during rides and accused the ride-hailing company of failing to protect its users.

Seventeen lawsuits were filed in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane Conway & Wise, the law firm representing many of the victims. These are separate lawsuits and not a class-action. The lawsuits are requesting a jury trial and do not specify a specific financial award except that they’re seeking compensatory damages, including all expenses and wages owed, damages for future loss of earnings, reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses and punitive damages.

The lawsuits, 13 of which were from drivers and passengers who were sexually assaulted, allege that Lyft didn’t have proper safety measures to prevent such attacks and failed to adequately respond once the assaults were reported.

Tracey Cowan, partner at Peiffer Wolf, said during a press conference that they want “Lyft to take the steps it knows it needs to take to make everyone safe.” Those steps, Cowan said, includes comprehensive background screening on its drivers, ensuring information that applicants provide as well as background checks are accurate through biometric fingerprint monitoring and providing dashcams to drivers.

“The best possible outcome would be for Lyft to actually make these changes that people — both passengers and drivers alike — have been asking for for years and we hope that’s what Lyft does,” Cowan said.

Lyft responded by emphasizing its commitment to safety and disputed some of the claims that were made during a virtual press conference held Wednesday featuring several drivers and passengers who have filed lawsuits.

“We’re committed to helping keep drivers and riders safe. While safety incidents on our platform are incredibly rare, we realize that even one is too many,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Our goal is to make every Lyft ride as safe as possible, and we will continue to take action and invest in technology, policies and partnerships to do so.”

Lyft said that every driver goes through “rigorous screening,” including a background check. Once approved, there is “continuous criminal monitoring.” Any driver who does not pass the initial, annual and continuous screenings is barred from the platform, the company said.  Every driver is required to take a community safety education course created in partnership with anti-sexual violence organization RAINN, according to Lyft.

The company also disputed plaintiffs’ attorneys assertion that it doesn’t cooperate with law enforcement. Some of the victims who spoke during the Wednesday press conference detailed their struggles to get Lyft to respond or share information with police.

Lyft told TechCrunch that it requires a subpoena or other valid legal process before disclosing personal information to law enforcement. The company said it is not standard process to proactively report safety incidents to law enforcement because the decision to report and when to do so is left up to the individual.

Lyft’s most recent community safety report, which was released in October 2021, found more than 4,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred to users of the ride-hailing platform between 2017 and the end of 2019. While the number of instances grew, Lyft cited that the rate decreased because the number of rides grew.

In October 2018, Lyft ended its forced arbitration policy for individual claims of sexual assault or harassment by drivers, riders or employees. However, the arbitration requirement is still in places for physical assault complaints.

China roundup: Alibaba’s sexual assault scandal and more delayed IPOs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

A sexual assault case at Alibaba has sparked a new round of #MeToo reckoning in China. Industry observers believe this is a watershed moment for the fight against China’s allegedly misogynist tech industry. Meanwhile, social media operators are still undecided on how to deal with the unprecedented public uproar against the powerful internet giant.

In other news, more Chinese tech companies have delayed plans to go public overseas after Didi’s fallout with Chinese regulators over its rushed IPO, including Tencent’s music streaming empire and one of China’s highest-valued autonomous driving startups.

Call for justice

Just past midnight last Sunday, an Alibaba employee posted on the company’s internal forum a detailed account saying her manager and a client had sexually assaulted her on a business trip. She took the case public after failing to obtain support from her superiors and human resources.

The post quickly made its rounds through China’s social media platforms. People stayed up blasting Alibaba’s ignorance, toxic business drinking, and the pervasive objectification of women in the Chinese “tech industry,” which has grown so far-reaching that it’s just the contemporary corporate world.

A day later, on August 9, Alibaba swiftly fired the alleged perpetrator. Two managers resigned and the firm’s head of HR was given a “disciplinary warning.” Alibaba’s CEO Daniel Zhang said he felt “shocked, angry and ashamed” about the incident and called on the company to work with the police to investigate the case.

This is arguably the most high-profile #MeToo case embroiling a major Chinese tech company by far and one that seems to have beckoned the toughest response from the company involved. Alibaba is formulating company policies to prevent sexual assaults, which surprises many that the global tech behemoth didn’t already have those in place.

The case managed to garner widespread public attention in China thanks to social media. Within the first few hours, it seemed as though discussion around the incident was propagating organically and uncensored on microblogging platform Weibo, in which Alibaba owns a majority stake.

But people soon noticed that despite the severity of the event, it took days before the case climbed to the top of Weibo’s trending chart, a bellwether for the most talked about topic on the Chinese internet. The perceived delay recalls Weibo’s censorship of an extramarital affair involving Alibaba executive Jiang Fan last year.

Talang Qingnian, roughly “Surfing Youth,” a social media column under state paper People’s Daily, blasted in an article:

The slow buildup of discussion again raised suspicion over whether Alibaba has manipulated public discourse.

Ever since the Jiang Fan case, the country’s attitude has been very clear that capital must not control the media.

As the basic infrastructure for truthful news in China, Weibo should not be a tool for any stakeholder to manipulate public opinion.

The article fanned up more public outrage but was soon taken down, likely because its wording was too strong. The Chinese state media apparatus is vast and only a few outlets, such as Xinhua, consistently convey top-level leaders’ official opinions. It’s not uncommon to see the less authoritative state-affiliated publications back down on reports that have cause backlashes. Last week, an article from a state-affiliated economic paper removed a piece calling video games “spiritual opium,” a loaded description that had earlier tanked the stocks of Tencent and NetEase, and republished the article with a softer tone.

Smaller war chests

Regulatory uncertainties have always been flagged as a risk by Chinese companies seeking overseas listings, but it was largely up to foreign investors to decide whether they were worthwhile investments. China’s recent regulatory onslaught on its tech darlings, however, has become a real deterrent for Chinese firms’ IPO dream.

This week, reports arrived that NetEase Music, a popular music streaming service, and, an autonomous vehicle startup last valued at $5.3 billion, have respectively postponed their plans to list in Hong Kong and New York.

Beijing has become warier of its data-rich companies getting scrutinized by U.S. regulators. Last month, the U.S. securities regulator said Chinese companies that want to raise capital in the U.S. must provide information about their legal structure and disclose the risk of Beijing’s interference in their business.

Many Chinese tech firms have learned from Didi’s fallout with the government, which had reportedly told the ride-sharing company to hold off on its listing until it sorted out a data protection framework. Didi went ahead regardless, triggering a government probe into its data practice and tanking its shares, which now stand at $8 apiece compared to $16 around its debut in early July.

Beijing’s crackdown has affected every major player in China’s consumer tech sector, wiping as much as $87 billion off the net worth of the country’s tech billionaires, including Pony Ma of Tencent and Colin Huang of Pinduoduo, according to Financial Times. The government wants “hard tech” like semiconductors and clean energy, so it has made it clear to future entrepreneurs where they should allocate their energy. The new generation of startups is listening now.

Radical Ethereum entrepreneurs are redefining what ‘rape kit’ means

Their investors call them disruptive innovators. Detractors like North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein call them “dirty scammers.” But Leda Health co-founders Madison Campbell and Liesel Vaidya think of themselves as advocates for sexual assault survivors. 

Among the feminists leveraging Ethereum for subversive use cases, Leda Health’s do-it-yourself evidence-collecting kit for sexual assault survivors is among the most ambitious projects. So far, 16 members of Congress condemned Leda Health’s upcoming kits, which Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel described as “shamelessly trying to take financial advantage of the #MeToo movement.” Leda Health’s DIY kit was nearly banned in New Hampshire and Utah before it even launched. But that hasn’t deterred Campbell and Vaidya. 

Campbell is a survivor herself, so she knows the reasons people don’t immediately go to police after an assault. In her case, by the time she’d grappled with the trauma and was ready to come forward, it would have just been her word against his.  

“There are also rape kits in every state that have been lost,” Campbell said. “The sheer amount of sexual assault survivors that reach out to me and tell me this product could change their lives, that’s what keeps me going.” 

As such, Campbell said her startup plans to launch these kits in fall 2021, partnering with several universities for a beta rollout. Support services, to complement the take-home kits, include therapy and transformative justice groups run by licensed facilitators.  

“We plan on being a business-to-business company, for universities and corporations and the military, partners like that,” Campbell said. “Our goal is for institutions to eventually pay for products and services to help these students. We know it will be difficult, that we’ll need a lot of case studies showing whether this helps… including healing work with people who committed harm about accountability and boundaries, to end that cycle of harm.” 

Starting by offering institutions free therapy services and resources should seem like a no-brainer. Yet critics argue these kits give survivors false hope, because they are less effective in court than rape kits managed by law enforcement and related clinics. On the other hand, every year tens of thousands of rape kits aren’t tested by police. 

Vaidya said Leda Health’s Ethereum-powered mobile app gives survivors the choice to document their own accounts, using blockchain technology for time-stamping evidence collected in the kit, which puts power back in survivors’ hands. 

“We’re not in the business of proving consent. We’re just in the business of providing resources,” Vaidya said.  

According to Chief Deputy District Attorney John Henry, in California’s Riverside County, this commercial product will be the first of its kind. He said it’s too soon to tell whether this could help survivors who are, for whatever reason, reluctant to immediately turn to law enforcement. Timing is also a factor. If the survivor is unable to get to a clinic promptly after the assault, there won’t be any biological evidence left to collect. 

Love them or hate them, there’s no denying these blockchain-savvy entrepreneurs are challenging the status quo in a space where women are horrifically underserved.

Nurses and police have some degree of experience and training on what to ask, where to follow up, what information is important. That is information the general public doesn’t have. As a prosecutor, I’d rather have those statements, and the additional investigation that goes on, done by law enforcement and medical personnel,” Henry said. “If a kit is collected in a way that is inconsistent with regulations and best practices, it’s not inadmissible. But that is something the jury would need to take into account… I can see the benefit of some type of evidence, as opposed to none. I can’t give a definitive opinion yet about whether it [Leda Health] is a good idea or a bad idea.”

A rape kit alone, of any variety, cannot result in a conviction or expulsion. It is merely a tool used as part of a broader investigation. Even so, the idea of survivors managing their own data has sparked vehement backlash. 

“Back in 2019, our office was broken into,” Vaidya said. “We’ve also documented potential investors engaging with social media posts calling for us to be jailed.” 

Campbell added they are now both subjected to routine online harassment. 

“We also take Ubers home from meetings or offices ever since 2019, because our lawyers told us not to take the subway. We might be followed,” Campbell said. 

The way this controversial kit works is a nondescript box comes with plastic bags, swabs and instructions all labeled with QR codes. Users download Leda Health’s app and are prompted to type in information while they save evidence of the assault, such as ripped panties, in separate Ziploc bags. 

“The blockchain creates a sense of accountability, because these records can’t be changed,” Vaidya said. “There’s only myself and perhaps one more person in the company that has access to the data and it’s encrypted…there are access locks regarding when and how and we might access that data if compelled to by a legal authority.” 

Leda Health outsources most of the tricky Ethereum software support to the blockchain startup Deqode. Deqode engineer Shivam Bohare said Leda Health’s system relies on Ethereum infrastructure services from Blocknative, a company that attracted investment from Coinbase Ventures, and Infura, a startup partially owned by Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin. The encrypted data and profile are attached to a specific user account, not any self-custodied token, so the blockchain aspects of this app all occur under the hood. Users don’t need to know anything about Ethereum. 

“Access to the user data is guarded using strict authorization,” Bohare said. “Even the users don’t have access to their own data (without proper authorization from Leda Health administration) once it’s been uploaded to the cloud.”

Unlike a kit administered by police, survivors can physically hold the kit until they turn it over to lawyers or authorities, rather than hoping their case isn’t one of the thousands that gets lost in the system. Plus, the DIY kit, combined with the records stored through the app, can be used for mediation outside of court, like group therapy sessions. 

“People tend to forget that self-collected evidence is extremely common in the U.S. court system and analyzed for admissibility and other issues on a regular basis,” said attorney Jiadai Lin, who provides outside counsel to Leda Health. 

Indeed, rape kits donated by another private manufacturer were reportedly used in April 2020 in Monterey County, California, under a temporary process developed for the pandemic.

“I believe survivors should have the right to gather information about their own bodies on their own terms, and entrepreneurs should have the right to try their hand at innovation,” Lin said. “In my view, legislative efforts to ban the product have been excessively restrictive. And that makes me feel even more strongly about standing behind Leda Health.”

Critics cast the startup’s entrepreneurial approach as greedy opportunism. Leda Health investors like Romeen Sheth, a Harvard law school alum and former co-president of the Harvard Association for Law and Business, poured $2 million into the startup so far because they believe the for-profit strategy can complement nonprofit organizations already working in this space. 

“Disruptive innovation in any industry is never comfortable; it never starts out as something that the incumbents are pleased with,” Sheth said. “I’m bullish on products and services that keep users as the top priority… I’m interested in investing in forward progress, not in maintaining the status quo. Leda Health defines that ethos and I’m hopeful their efforts make sexual trauma and sexual harassment less embarrassing, painful and traumatic.” 

Now, as Campbell and Vaidya finish work on the prototype, Leda Health already started offering support groups for sexual assault survivors, led by licensed therapists. 

“We have two groups going right now and another five starting in May,” Vaidya said. 

Love them or hate them, there’s no denying these blockchain-savvy entrepreneurs are challenging the status quo in a space where women, in particular, are horrifically underserved by current resources. 

“For sexual assault victims, the cost of the status quo, which includes under-reporting, a massive kit processing backlog and general lack of support services, is very high. Leda is demonstrating there are innovative low-risk solutions available,” said investor Duriya Farooqui. “Second, among the reasons an assault victim may not immediately report is because the procedure for collecting evidence via a rape kit can feel invasive and in itself can add to trauma. Leda wants to provide options.” 





Lyft faces lawsuit that alleges kidnapping at gunpoint and rape

Lyft is facing another lawsuit pertaining to its handling of alleged sexual assaults at the hands of drivers on its platform. In a suit filed today in the San Franciso Superior Court, Alison Turkos accuses Lyft of eleven counts, including general negligence, vicarious liability for assault with a deadly weapon, sexual assault, and sexual battery, and breach of contract.

The lawsuit describes how the plaintiff’s Lyft driver allegedly kidnapped her at gunpoint and took her across state lines, where the driver and other men took turns raping her, the lawsuits states.

“Alison remembers the men cheering and high fiving each other as they continued to rape her,” the lawsuit alleges. “Their attack was so brutal that the next day Alison experienced severe vaginal pain and bleeding. Her body was so exhausted from the attack and resulting trauma that Alison could not even leave her bed or raise her arms.”

When the plaintiff reported it to Lyft, the lawsuit alleges Lyft simply apologized for “inconvenience” and gave her a partial refund for the ride. The plaintiff says she reported the crime to the police, who performed a rape kit that found evidence of semen from at least two men on the clothing she wore that night.

The New York Police Department then transferred the case to the FBI, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit states the FBI is now investigating the incident as a human trafficking case. However, Lyft “has been wholly uncooperative” throughout the NYPD and FBI’s investigation, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit seeks special damages, including economic restitution to cover past and future hospital expenses, as well as expenses relating to her profession and loss of earning capacity.

“By failing to take reasonable steps to confront the problem of multiple rapes and sexual assaults of LYFT passengers by LYFT drivers, LYFT has acted in conscious disregard of the safety of its passengers,” the lawsuit alleges.

This suit comes just weeks after fourteen women filed suit against Lyft alleging the company has not addressed complaints pertaining to sexual assault. Both suits recommended Lyft adopt new policies, such as the addition of a surveillance camera to the app that can record audio and video of all rides.

Meanwhile, Lyft recently announced new safety features, including trip check-ins if a ride seems to be taking longer than it should and in-app 911 calling.

“We’re committed to playing a significant role in connecting our communities with transportation, and we understand the responsibilities that come along with that,” Lyft co-founder and President John Zimmer wrote in a blog post. “We’ve known since the beginning that as part of our mission, we must heavily invest in safety. We continue to welcome accountability and partnership to best protect our rider and driver community.”

It’s no coincidence that Lyft announced these safety features in light of the lawsuit on behalf of those fourteen women. The company had previously taken some steps to address safety, but at a much slower pace than competitor Uber, which has also faced a number of sexual assault and abuse lawsuits. Between 2014-2018, CNN found 103 Uber drivers who had been accused of sexual assault or abuse of passengers.

Over the years, both companies have taken steps to ramp up their respective safety procedures. In April, Uber launched a campus safety initiative while Lyft implemented continuous background checks and enhanced its identity verification process for drivers. Uber, however, implemented continuous background checks about a full year before Lyft, and added an in-app 911 calling feature more than a year before Lyft.

“We don’t take lightly any instances where someone’s safety is compromised, especially in the rideshare industry, including the allegations of assault in the news last week,” Zimmer said earlier this month in that same blog post. “The reality is that certain populations carry a disproportionate burden simply trying to get to work or back home after a night out — in the U.S., one in six women will face some form of sexual violence in their lives. The onus is on all of us to learn from any incident, whether it occurs on our platform or not, and then work to help prevent them.”

TechCrunch is awaiting comment from Lyft regarding this lawsuit. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

3D printed gun activist Cody Wilson indicted for sexual assault

The State of Texas has indicted Cody Wilson, a 3D printed gun rights activist who fought to allow makers post and print guns, of sexual assault after he had sex with a 17-year-old girl. The affidavit noted that he met the girl on a website for finding “sugar daddies.” The indictment, posted on Ars, notes that he faces “four counts of sexual assault of a child, two charges of indecency with a child by contact, and two charges of indecency with a child by exposure.”

The charges are punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The affidavit on the crime said Wilson used the name Sanjuro on the site and that he paid the 17-year-old $500 for sex. His company, DefenseDistributed, has dumped him as founder.

Wilson is out on $150,000 bond and not yet in jail.

He rose to prominence for supporting 3D printed guns as far back as 2013, causing a panic that reduced interest in the 3D printing industry and led to a court decision in July that found 3D printed gun plans to be legal.

Lyft also ends arbitration policy for sexual assault claims

Shortly after Uber announced the end of its forced arbitration policy for individual claims of sexual assault or harassment by Uber drivers, riders or employees, Lyft has done the same, Recode first reported. This means anyone who alleges sexual misconduct at the hands of Lyft drivers, riders or employees won’t have to argue their case behind closed doors. Instead, they can take the claim straight to court.

“Lyft has a longstanding track record of action in support of the communities we serve, from our commitment to the ACLU to standing up for pay equity and racial equality,” a Lyft spokesperson told TechCrunch. “The #metoo movement has brought to life important issues that must be addressed by society, and we’re committed to doing our part. Today, 48 hours prior to an impending lawsuit against their company, Uber made the good decision to adjust their policies. We agree with the changes and have removed the confidentiality requirement for sexual assault victims, as well as ended mandatory arbitration for those individuals so that they can choose which venue is best for them. This policy extends to passengers, drivers and Lyft employees.”

As the Lyft spokesperson noted in their comment, Uber made the decision to drop mandatory arbitration about 48 hours before the company had to respond to a lawsuit filed by 14 women who alleged they were assaulted by their drivers. The women also asked Uber to waive its arbitration clause.