At a dinner party in New York last Friday, an Uber mistake of epic proportions took place: Emil Michael, senior vice president of business for the ride-sharing company, made social conversation out of threats to disgrace PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy, a female tech journalist who has repeatedly criticized the company. His idea: Hire “opposition researchers” to investigate her and expose personal details.
But timing is key. On the heels of that announcement, Uber NYC’s general manager came under fire for allegedly dipping into the records of a BuzzFeed journalist—without her permission. Now calls to “delete Uber” have taken the Web by storm, and new concerns about Uber’s so-called “God Complex” have taken root.
Uber already had its hands full before this incident. Its bad reputation for guerrilla recruitment efforts and faulty security screening of drivers had already made mincemeat of its reputation. Then this summer, three Texas users filed a lawsuit against the company, as well as competitor Lyft, for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. They contend the services deny transportation to disabled users in wheelchairs.
After BuzzFeed ran the original story, the company has been in peak damage-control mode.
Co-founder Travis Kalanick’s unhappiness with the way this episode escalated has been plain. He had been trying to wage what the media has been calling a “charm offensive,” hoping to schmooze his company’s way out of all the negative press Uber has been getting—from shady driver recruiting ploys to its treatment of women. Things have not gone according to plan.
Kalanick tried to mitigate the harm by tweeting more than a dozen apologetic messages, although he took a passive, mistakes-were-made tone and refused to take action against Michael:
1/ Emil's comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company.
— travis kalanick (@travisk) November 18, 2014
Kalanick was present at Friday’s dinner, along with The Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington and celebrity Ed Norton. Whether he attempted to stop the vengeful plan from falling out of his VP’s mouth—Michael casts it as a revenge fantasy only, not a plan—isn’t clear. Media writer Michael Wolff, who invited BuzzFeed’s Smith to the dinner, claims Kalanick was at the other end of a 40-foot table and thus never heard Michael’s remarks.
Uber has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data. The only exception to this policy is for a limited set of legitimate business purposes.
Uber’s head of communications, Nairi Hourdajian, told CNET:
Data security specialists monitor and audit that access on an ongoing basis. Violations of this policy do result in disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination and legal action.
But that vaguely worded “legitimate business purposes” line in the new policy seems subject to interpretation. According to BuzzFeed, Uber NYC General Manager Josh Mohrer accessed the records of reporter Johana Bhuiyan not once, but twice, in preparation for a conversation about the company’s policies—despite the fact that she never granted permission.
He allegedly used Uber’s “God View” tool, which apparently tracks any driver or user that requested a car. Bhuiyan claimed that Mohrer waited for her to hop out of her Uber car at the company’s New York City office, and told her, “I was tracking you.”
The GM is now the subject of an internal investigation. Mohrer also got another turn in the spotlight with a now-deleted tweet in which he wrote dismissively of the controversy, noting in passing that “#HatersGonnaHate.”
All this puts the company, once again, in the hot seat.
A Crash Course With Public Condemnation
In one sign of the Uber backlash, a Twitter movement to stop patronizing the company (under the “delete Uber” banner) has been gathering steam. Actor and renowned geek object of affection John Hodgman penned a damning post about Uber stating, with particular flair, that he can’t “get in a car anymore with those guys.” The short article has already gone viral.
For many people, Michael’s behavior was tantamount to corporate-sanctioned “doxxing”—an attack strategy that unearths and publicizes personal documents of targeted individuals. Recently, doxxing made headlines as one of the favorite scare tactics of the amorphous GamerGate movement, which has threatened and intimidated numerous female figures—from game developer Brianna Wu and media critic Anita Sarkeesian, to actress and Web celebrity Felicia Day.
So it’s difficult to overlook the fact that the the “God View” investigation and the subject of Michael’s rant were both female reporters. The original subject, Sarah Lacy, has written several tough pieces on Uber (particularly a recent post on the company’s misogynistic tendencies), which triggered the ill-conceived dinner conversation in the first place.
— ACME Sales Manager (@ACMESalesRep) November 18, 2014
Michael, believing the dinner party was off the record, suggested the company spend $1 million on an all-out revenge campaign against the media, specifically targeting Lacy. According to BuzzFeed, the executive said Uber should hire “opposition researchers” and other journalists to dig into “your personal lives, your families.”
The still-incumbent Uber vice president has since apologized for his colossal blunder, chalking it up to blowing off steam with nonsense talk:
The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner—borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for—do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.
Now that Michael uncorked his hate-filled genie, other tech executives apparently can’t resist doing the same on other journalists:
impressive h8 mail from a loyal reader pic.twitter.com/b39OJrjj6W
— ಠ_ಠ (@MikeIsaac) November 19, 2014
Meanwhile, I just received a promo email with extraordinarily bad timing: Apparently, the company wants me to “have a holly jolly holiday party with Uber,” or so the subject line reads.
I think I’ll pass.
Feature photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite