The big trend in tech blogging this week is deleting the Uber mobile app and then blogging about it. Look around and you’ll find dozens of bloggers declaring that they've joined the boycott, or finding some other way to capitalize on the company's ongoing PR disaster.
If you’re not caught up on it yet, the latest controversy with Uber involves its apparent abuse of user data for no legitimate reason. When Buzzfeed News reporter Johana Bhuiyan showed up at Uber’s New York headquarters for a meeting, Uber’s New York general manager Josh Mohrer reportedly met her outside and told her he had been tracking her Uber ride to the office. This was two months after Mohrer had emailed Bhuiyan records of her previous Uber activity, which Bhuiyan never requested nor authorized him to access.
This tipped Buzzfeed off to both the amount of data that Uber can access and the lack of discretion with which the company treats it. Subsequent interviews with former Uber employees led Buzzfeed News to the company’s unfortunately named "God View" tool that allows them to track any Uber ride at will. All of this came just days after an Uber executive (apparently as a joke) threatened to hire private investigators to "dig up dirt" on journalists who were critical of the company, namely PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy, while Buzzfeed News' editor-in-chief was in the room. It’s been quite the week for Uber.
Anyone who has followed Uber since its inception shouldn’t be too surprised, however. The earliest notable controversy for Uber that I remember came in early 2012, after New York users first reacted to the company’s surge pricing practices on New Year’s Eve, sometimes charging "more than $100 for a ride that should have cost $20," according to the New York Times. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick defended the practice, which he would do in increasingly arrogant fashion every time customers complained from then on. Last December, he posted another user’s angry email complaining about surge pricing in New York during a blizzard to his Facebook page, advising his friends to "get some popcorn and scroll down." With such a dismissive attitude toward customers even in its early stages, it was only a matter of time until users would turn against it.
People are calling for an Uber boycott for several reasons: its apparent lack of concern for female users who have been attacked and even kidnapped by drivers, its misleading compensation promises to drivers, apparent lapses in criminal background checks of its drivers, the list goes on. Personally, I stopped using Uber about a year ago, when Kalanick made it clear that the company would use surge pricing even during dangerous weather, roughly a year after he told the New York Times, "I don’t think that the constantly changing car price is necessarily where we want to go." Sure, I didn't want to pay extra at peak hours, but I also didn't want anything to do with a company that gouged its customers during a snow storm. I knew that the more successful Uber got, the better its chances were at pushing traditional taxi cab services to extinction. And while taxi services may be imperfect themselves, they’ve never tripled fares just because I’d be stuck outside in a blizzard if I didn’t agree, or couldn’t afford, to pay. (In the off chance that someone at Uber reads this and decides to go "God View" on me, I should admit that I haven’t entirely abandoned Uber. I’m sure I’ve ordered a car once or twice when I’ve had difficulty finding a cab, and I also remember ordering a black car to get to a restaurant on my anniversary. But I primarily use my local cab service’s mobile app, which works just as well as Uber’s. I just wanted to get that disclosure out of the way.)
However, even since I've soured on Uber, I haven't deleted the app, even when I needed to purge my iPhone just to upgrade to iOS 8. And it’s for good reason – Uber can be a life saver in an emergency situation.
On my very first Uber ride, I remember being pretty excited – in-app ordering of cabs meant I didn’t have to call and be put on hold for 30 minutes, and GPS meant drivers were more likely to find me. I was most excited that the app synced with my credit card. I even asked my driver at the time (a cab driver; this was pre-UberX) if I would ever need to show or swipe my credit card, and he said no. I actually told him how useful that could be if I were to lose my wallet somewhere far from home (he didn't care). Especially in Boston at the time, when public transportation closed earlier than the bars, it was good to know that if something had happened to my payment cards, I could at least pay for a ride home with my phone. Try hailing a cab and telling them you’ve lost all your cash and credit cards, and see how fast they drive away.
Uber may not be ideal, and the company behind it definitely isn’t likable, but at the very least the app is a good backup plan, at least until taxi cab services start to accept some form of mobile payments. If you find yourself stranded in the cold in the middle of the night, Uber could at least get you home, even if it’ll exploit your situation just to do so.