Uber, The Rideshare App Of Horrors, Suggests Doxxing Journalists (Which Ashton Kutcher Doesn’t Think Is “So Wrong”)

This past Monday, Buzzfeed published an account of Uber executive Emil Michael suggesting that Uber could and should spend millions of dollars digging up dirt on journalists’ personal lives in order to smear writers who criticize the ride-sharing service. Journalists like Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily, for example, who discussed concerns of misogyny at Uber. Per Buzzfeed:

[Lacy] wrote that she was deleting her Uber app after BuzzFeed News reported that Uber appeared to be working with a French escort service. ‘I don’t know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn’t respect us or prioritize our safety,’ she wrote.

At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held ‘personally responsible’ for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.

This has received a whole boatload of backlash, of course. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick tweeted an apology in 13 parts, though, in Valleywag’s words, “without answering a single question“:

“Emil’s comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company. His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals. His duties here at Uber do not involve communications strategy or plans and are not representative in any way of the company approach.

Instead, we should lead by inspiring our riders, our drivers, and the public at large. We should tell the stories of progress and appeal to people’s hearts and minds. We must be open and vulnerable enough to show people the positive principles that are the core of Uber’s culture. We must tell the stories of progress Uber has brought to cities and must show […] our constituents that we are principled and mean well.

The burden is on us to show that, and until Emil’s comments we felt we were making positive steps along those lines. But I will personally commit to our riders, partners, and the public that we are up to the challenge. We are up to the challenge to show that Uber is and will be a positive member of the community. And furthermore, I will do everything in my power towards the goal of earning that trust. I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them — myself included, and that also goes for Emil. And last, I want to apologize to [Sarah Lacy].”

Valleywag enumerates the questions this whole situation raises far better than I could, but the gist is that this raises concerns over rider data, especially now that Google has invested in Uber to the tune of over $250 million. Kalanick has stated that rider data is confidential and only used for “legitimate business purposes,” but when Uber thinks it’s legitimate to give company operatives burner phones to order and cancel rides from its competitor, Lyft, in order to hurt their business, how much confidence does that inspire?

And I don’t want for a single second to glaze over the fact that Michael’s comments were directed toward the personal life of a female journalist. It’s an indefensible idea either way, investigating the personal lives of journalists who are critical of a product, but let’s look at #GamerGate as an example of exactly how women are treated by people attempting to launch smear campaigns, regardless of their profession. The tenor of censorship against women almost always has something to do with our sex lives — whether it’s about who we marry, that we don’t marry, who we have sex with, how many people we have sex with, etc. It would be predictable that Michael would believe that the details of Sarah Lacy’s romantic or sex life would be enough to discredit her as a journalist. That is an inherently misogynistic idea at its core, which just ends up reinforcing her overall contention that Uber is a misogynist company.

Keeping all of that in mind, it’s important to note that Ashton Kutcher, who is an Uber investor, is now defending Michael’s comments, even as Michael himself is keeping silent and distancing himself from the whole debacle. Kutcher tweeted:

What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist? @pando @TechCrunch @Uber

— ashton kutcher (@aplusk) November 19, 2014

And then:

This should be fun… Here comes the part where journalist explain why they should be exempt from ridicule and judgement and probing…

— ashton kutcher (@aplusk) November 19, 2014

Let’s be clear on this: Michael framed this specifically as a smear campaign. He disliked Sarah Lacy’s criticism and attempted to perform logical leaps to say that if anyone gets raped by a cabbie Sarah Lacy should be held personally responsible. Let’s pause for a second to mull on the fact that that is TOTALLY INSANE, because rapists are responsible for raping women, not women who write articles suggesting that certain corporations behave in a sexist way. But then Kutcher proceeded to bring up the idea that information about Sarah Lacy that is both irrelevant to the way Uber functions and irrelevant to her professional life could be used to discredit her. That’s not “investigating shady journalists” — even Michael didn’t suggest that she was shady or say anything that was factually incorrect — that’s just tarring and feathering a woman publicly. How is ridiculing an individual journalist on the basis of their private life fair game for a corporation?

Meanwhile, comedian John Hodgman took to his blog to explain exactly why Michael’s statements were reprehensible, and why he’d be deleting his Uber app:

“I’m sure Emil Michael is very talented at what he does and it would probably be hard and/or expensive for Uber to let him go.

But this is an executive who advocated for doxxing as corporate policy.

And if he did’t mean that they would publicly reveal the dirt his million dollar team of opposition researchers discovered, what ELSE would they do with that information? Use it against the journalist, I guess? I mean WHAT ELSE?

In particular, his public axe-grinding against Sarah Lacy was beyond unprofessional, and simply gross. And, if reported fairly, this moment from the Buzzfeed account itself implies a specific—if veiled—threat that’s an eyelash away from blackmail. And his defense—that he didn’t mean the words coming out of his mouth—is beyond cowardly.”

And, of course, while all of this is happening, Uber’s getting even more bad press after an Uber driver told a cancer patient that she’s “not human” and deserves to be sick because she canceled her ride to grab her scarf from inside the hospital. That sort of thing happens a lot, of course, because Uber refuses to employ or unionize their drivers (they’re contractors, not Uber employees) and therefore can’t be held accountable either by the drivers for fair treatment or by riders when they’re mistreated by drivers. And I hope I don’t need to remind you that that came to terrifying light when an Uber rider was kidnapped by her driver, and when a driver tried to get a different, intoxicated Uber rider to come to a motel with him. You can read even more Uber horror stories over at The Daily Beast, because it’s at least possible to make a whole list of Uber horror stories, when there’s no way to hold Uber responsible for their drivers.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, State Representative Michael Zalewski filed the paperwork to override outgoing Governor Pat Quinn’s veto on a ride-sharing bill that would require anyone driving for money over 18 hours a week to have a chauffeur’s license, which would make the drivers accountable to the state and even the playing field between cabs and ride-sharing drivers. The bill passed easily in the State House and Senate, but Quinn overrode it anyway. (Being that Illinois has some of the most corrupt politicians in the country, I have a few guesses as to why he was inclined to do that.) A sponsored post showed up in my Twitter feed from Uber this morning asking me to contact my local representative and urge him to oppose Zalewski and the ride-sharing bill. Given everything that’s happened with Uber in the last few months, I tweeted Mike Quigley to ask him to help demolish Uber, instead.

[Buzzfeed]

[Twitter]

[Valleywag]

[TechCrunch]

[Washington Post]

[VICE]

[Women’s World]

[Daily Dot]

[Jezebel]

[RawStory]

[The Verge]

[The Daily Beast]

[Chicago Reader]

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