Uber and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month

… following on from the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Few Years

uber app
freestocks.org (CC0)

On February 19th, this year, Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer who left Uber (I don’t have to explain what Uber is, do I?) to work for Stripe (okay, I’ll outline what they are: Stripe has been described as “the PayPal of the mobile era”) blogged about her experience of working at Uber. She outlined a nightmarish corporate culture of poor management, backstabbing, dirty politics, and negligent human resources, along with apparently endemic and rampant sexual discrimination and harassment. 

Uber almost immediately retained former U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder, to investigate not only Fowler’s allegations but also those of other former employees. Fowler has since had to retain legal counsel because, she claims, she’s been named in email messages from Uber to customers who wanted to delete their accounts and believes her background is being researched for a smear campaign. 

Then, just eight days later, Uber’s SVP of engineering, Amit Singhal, was forced to resign for failing to tell Uber that he had been involved in a sexual harassment case when he was employed by Google.

travis kalanik uber Heisenberg Media / Wikipedia

Travis Kalanick, ceo, Uber

Was that the end of it? Nope. On March 1st a video was published by Fawzi Kamel, an Uber driver, of Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanik, being rude and dismissive in an argument over the company’s pricing and treatment of drivers. 

When the video went viral, Kalanick apologized to Kamel in an email he sent to Uber staff wherein he also admitted:

It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.

I want to profoundly apologize to Fawzi, as well as the driver and rider community, and to the Uber team.

There is, however, no report of Kalanick apologizing personally to Kamel but perhaps that was just not convenient given Kalanick’s busy schedule. 

All of these events are just the latest in a string of similar ones (see, for example, see Pando’s The moment I learned just how far Uber will go to silence journalists and attack women from 2014) that suggest that Uber’s management has, shall we say, serious problems in the ethics department. Or perhaps more accurately, no ethics department.

But wait! It gets worse! Yesterday, the (failing) New York Times broke the story on how Uber has been using a  software tool called “Greyball” to evade authorities in cities world-wide where the company was being targeted for illegal operation or was outright banned.

The tool apparently collected user data from the Uber smartphone app and used that to identify city officials and law enforcement officers and evade them so that Uber drivers could avoid getting tickets. The Greyball software even displayed fake Uber “ghost” cars in the app when used by identified officials. The cat and mouse game between Uber and the authorities reached remarkable levels according to the report:

Enforcement officials involved in large-scale sting operations meant to catch Uber drivers would sometimes buy dozens of cellphones to create different accounts. To circumvent that tactic, Uber employees would go local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones for sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials working with budgets that were not sizable.

Uber has admitted to the Greyball program, which was approved by the company’s legal team, and issued a statement saying:

This program denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service — whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.

This response is breathtaking in its undeniable arrogance and admission of corrupt and unethical behavior. 

Uber’s dubious ethics with regards to what their drivers earn (in many cases, when all of the factors are accounted for, it amounts to a net revenue of $0 per hour) are well documented …

… and given that Uber has operating losses of $2 billion a year, more than any startup in history, it's no surprise that the company is focussed on winning at all costs, up to and including undeniably illegal behavior. 

I have previously written about how the giant social media companies need to be reined-in for the good of the country and here we have yet another disruptive industry that needs to be brought under control. Allowing Uber to continue operating as it is will only be good for the select few in the short term. In the long term, it’s likely to be devastatingly bad for far, far more.

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