The ugly side of Uber exposed in US: Here's why Indians should also care

FP Staff November 19, 2014 09:07:34 IST
The ugly side of Uber exposed in US: Here's why Indians should also care

A huge controversy involving Uber, after one of its senior executives was quoted as suggesting that the company should spend a million dollars to hire a team of opposition researchers to "dig up dirt" on its critics in the media, has highlighted a troubling record of corporate practices by the multi-million dollar company that involve misogyny, bullying and sheer arrogance.

According to Buzzfeed, which first reported the story, Senior Vice President Emil Michael, had outlined the notion of spending "a million dollars" to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. "That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press - they'd look into "your personal lives, your families," and give the media a taste of its own medicine."

Buzzfeed added that "Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry. Lacy recently accused Uber of "sexism and misogyny. Uber's dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life."

Lacy had been referring to another report from Buzzfeed, which noted that Uber was working with a French escort service to pair 'hot chicks' with drivers, an incident that Lacy called another example of Silicon Valley's 'asshole culture'. She then announced that she would delete her app, because she no longer felt 'safe' using it.

"Women drive Ubers and ride in them. I don't know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn't respect us or prioritize our safety", she said.

She also noted that the company's PR team had often discredited female passengers who accuse drivers of attacking them by whispering that they were "drunk" or "dressed provocatively."

Responding to Michael's comments, Lacy published a post lambasting the company as going too far and other Silicon Valley VC's and bloggers for winking and looking away. "And lest you think this was just a rogue actor and not part of the company's game plan, let me remind you Kalanick telegraphed exactly this sort of thing when he sat on stage at the Code Conference last spring and said he was hiring political operatives whose job would be to "throw mud." I naively thought he just meant Taxi companies", she said.

And reportedly Lacy is not the only journalist to land up on the wrong side of the Uber radar.

San Francisco magazine Senior Editor Ellen Cushing wrote, While I was reporting my recent cover story on Uber and its CEO Travis Kalanick, several current and former Uber employees warned me that company higher-ups might access my rider logs. Because I couldn't independently verify these claims without sacrificing my sources' anonymity, I didn't include them in the final piece. However, in light of Buzzfeed's latest revelations about Uber executives discussing hiring opposition researchers to dig into the personal life of a reporter, Sarah Lacy, who had repeatedly criticized the company, these threats against my own privacy appear to be less of a paranoid possibility than I'd originally thought.

In response, Uber seems to have updated its data policy, in an effort to reassure customers that they will not 'snoop' into travel logs.

Buta now-deleted tweet by Uber's General Manager in New York City, Josh Mohrer, has only added to the controversy. In response to the Buzzfeed expose and the outrage following it, Mohrer had tweeted a picture of Uber staffers dancing to the Taylor Swift hit 'Shake it off' with the hashtag #HatersGonnaHate.

Uber founder Travis Kalanick, later sent out a series of tweets condemning Michael's comments about Lacy, but the fact that he has chosen not to fire him, has created more anger against the company.

Kalanick hasalso acquired a reputation for being extremely ruthless. According to reports, Uber officialsrepeatedly called and cancelled rides from a cab service in order to get the rival's drivers' details so that they could poach them.He has also frequently gone on record as saying that he wanted to 'smash' taxi cartels, many of whom have been opposed to Uber services entering US cities like New York or Chicago.

Uber, which is valued at $18 billion was introduced to India in 2013, and has been steadily gaining popularity in the country. The service which first started in Bangalore, has been expanded to 10 Indian cities, including Mumbai and Delhi. And while these controversies have created a furore in the US, it is highly unlikely that this will create any adverse impact on the company's success in India.

While Uber ran into a roadblock when it came to its payment process, the company hasn't really faced any publiccomplaints or controversies when it comes to its drivers.Quite apart from the fact that Uber US is far removed from the minds of the average Indian user, and therefore unlikely to reach or affect them,it would be easy to ignore this controversy regarding the company'sunethical behaviour or business practices.However, concerns over user data and the potential for its misuse are very real threats even in India, andcan't be ignored.

In a country where misogyny is very much a part of everyday life, it is unlikely that the controversy involving the taxi appwill be seen as much of a transgression, or something for which the company give an explanation forin India. But the inconvenient question it raisesis thatin the event ofan untoward incident,it isn't very clear on whose side Uber would stand on. And that's not very comforting.

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