Uber has something of a reputation for being the boisterous, most keenly disruptive start-up on the current landscape, but now that aggressive streak has landed the firm in hot water. This week, BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith broke the story of how Senior VP Emil Michael proposed that the company hire researchers to rake up dirt on journalists who are proving troublesome. Michael floated this idea at a meeting which was supposedly intended for planning a “charm offensive” to win back the media, after Pando’s Sarah Lacy penned an exposé condemning Uber’s “asshole culture” of sexism and misogyny.
Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick was quick to make a public apology on his colleague’s behalf, and Michael himself issued a statement on Monday expressing the requisite amount of contrition, while arguably still attempting to pin blame on the journalist in question: “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.”
But his apology has fallen on deaf ears for some, as increasing numbers of users state via social media that they are ditching the app. “Just deleted Uber,” tweeted writer Abi Wilkinson on Wednesday. “There are better taxi apps that don’t have a total lack of respect for privacy and an aggressive attitude to journalists.” And she is far from alone, as the scandal leads The Guardian to pose the question; “Is Uber the worst company in Silicon Valley?”
Even Uber investor Ashton Kutcher decided to enter the fray, tweeting support for Michael’s suggestion: “What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist?” Pando’s editor Paul Carr pointed out that Kutcher and Michael’s definition of “shady” appears to apply to anybody who says something that doesn’t explicitly toe the company line, tweeting: “Of course he backed down, but he did his celebrity investor job for Uber – planted the idea that Sarah is ‘shady’ without facts.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Uber is also being forced to investigate one of its general managers in New York City, after he accessed the travel records of reporter Johana Bhuiyan without her permission. “Any such activity would be clear violations of our privacy and data access policies,” says Uber spokesperson Nairi Hourdajian. “Access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes. These policies apply to all employees. We regularly monitor and audit that access.”