Uber scandal highlights Silicon Valley's bad behavior

uber driver
Credit: Uber

What price convenience?

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Car service app Uber found itself in trouble again when top executive Emil Michael was caught at a dinner party suggesting that the company hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt on the (predominantly female) journalists who have been asking uncomfortable questions about the crazy successful car service startup caught up in scandal after scandal.

It's led to a lot of discussion about whether or not anyone can trust Uber. 

Naturally, the world -- particularly the media world -- exploded in outrage over Michael's comments. Many say it's a tempest in a teapot, limited largely to the insular community of Silicon Valley tech reporters, which -- full disclosure -- includes me  (obviously). But maybe it shouldn't be limited to that small group.

One San Francisco reporter shared the story of how Uber employees warned her that corporate command might be watching her after she wrote a piece critical of the company. 

Others recalled past instances where Uber demonstrated its commitment to never pulling up rider data by pulling up rider data. Sarah Lacy, the Pando Daily reporter who was the primary target of Michael's half-baked plan to smear her, said that the incident should make women fearful of taking Uber, ever. Just think of all the data the company  has on riders, from finances to daily movement patterns. 

The latest trouble culminated in a Twitter apology from Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who called Michael's controversial statements "terrible" and said they "do not represent the company." Both also apologized to Lacy. But nobody was fired and none of Uber's investors have come forward to condemn their portfolio company's behavior. No specific points were addressed. It was a crowning achievement in non-apology.

"There is something very wrong with this company. It’s like Richard Nixon came back from the grave and is running a startup," joked tech pundit John Gruber at Daring Fireball.

It's not just Uber. There's a hard thing about living in Silicon Valley -- once defined as the actual literal valley south of San Francisco, but now encompassing the entire San Francisco Bay Area -- and it's something that not a lot of people like to think about. Everyone who lives here -- who partakes in this new world of innovation, as an investor, employee, or consumer -- is part of the problem.

It's like this: Uber makes money because people keep giving it money, right? And it wouldn't be able to go through all these boom-and-bust cycles of scandal (see also: Convincing drivers to go for toxic loans; filibustering the competition) and public rehabilitation if riders didn't keep getting romanced again and again by lower fares and a promise to do better this time, really. It's pretty much conventional wisdom that Uber is going to keep spreading far and wide, and Uber doesn't really argue much when it's characterized as a true Silicon Valley success story.

But Uber is far from the only problematic success in the San Francisco startup scene. Uber's pratfalls tend to be majorly public, because, yeah, Nixon's ghost really does seem to haunt every aspect of its PR efforts. 

Snapchat logo

Snapchat logo

Snapchat wants to become a money-swapping platform, but can't keep user data secure. The prevailing wisdom for women in technology is to "Lean In," ignoring the vast majority of underprivileged workers for whom that's just not a possibility. Google, Uber, and a bunch of smaller startups have all been accused at one time or another of exploiting contract workers, taking advantage of a workforce that they can overwork and still deny benefits. And Facebook is, you know, Facebook, selling your information to anybody and everybody

Are there easy answers? Of course not. All the companies named here, Uber included, have all become part of the fabric of life in the Bay Area. Even for the rare person who lives here that doesn't ever, ever take advantage of the services provided by a technology company, it's hard to overstate the impact that they have on the community.

Uber protesters Image credit: REUTERS/Max Whittaker

Taxi drivers recently protesting against companies such as Uber and Lyft in Sacramento, Calif.

Just ask anybody who's ever tried to have a quiet lunch anywhere in downtown San Francisco while Oracle, VMware, or Salesforce are throwing their conferences. Just ask anybody who's trying to get a cab at San Francisco International airport while this current anti-Uber/Lyft/Sidecar taxi strike is underway

If you accept that Silicon Valley is the hotbed for new ideas, technologies and companies that will soon sweep the world, you also have to accept that these problems will scale accordingly. But if you want to live in a world where a dominant player even considers abusing the data it has into the lives of the people who dare ask  tough questions, and which demonstrates a disregard for its workforce and its community, then please, keep validating Uber.

Maybe routine abuses of power and privacy and privilege are the price you have to pay for convenience and innovation. But I don't think so. I think the time has really come to rethink what you're really getting when you're paying for the services you're using. 

In other words, if Silicon Valley is the future, we're doing it wrong. 

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