November 18th, 2014
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is allowing his company to engage in some shameful tactics. This is a story from multiple sources, and of multiple incidents.
While I was reporting my recent cover story on Uber and its CEO Travis Kalanick, several current and former Uber employees warned me that company higher-ups might access my rider logs. Because I couldn’t independently verify these claims without sacrificing my sources’ anonymity, I didn’t include them in the final piece.
However, in light of Buzzfeed’s latest revelations about Uber executives discussing hiring opposition researchers to dig into the personal life of a reporter, Sarah Lacy, who had repeatedly criticized the company, these threats against my own privacy appear to be less of a paranoid possibility than I’d originally thought.
It’s worth noting here that as far as I know, the company hasn’t looked into my logs. After talking to Uber staffers, it’s quite clear that the company stokes paranoia in its employees about talking to the press, so there’s a solid possibility that my sources’ fears were just the result of overzealous (and unfounded) precaution. But when I contacted a former employee last night about the news, this person told me that “it’s not very hard to access the travel log information they’re talking about. I have no idea who is ‘auditing’ this log or access information. At least when I was there, any employee could access rider rating information, as I was able to do it. How much deeper you could go with regular access, I’m not sure, as I didn’t try.” A second former employee told me something similar, saying “I never heard anything about execs digging into reporters’ travel logs, though it would be easy for them to do so.”
I still can’t believe that an office of Uber — a company valued at $18 billion and held up as a bastion of modern entrepreneurship — posted an ad that encouraged, played on, and celebrated treating women who may choose to drive cars to make extra money like hookers.
As a woman in this industry struggling mightily with growing sexism in tech demonstrated by people like Uber founder Travis Kalanick, it felt like a punch to the stomach. I didn’t actually think Uber could shock me anymore. I was wrong.
I’ve spent weeks since my 6,000-word rant on Silicon Valley assholes having private conversations with the VCs who fund them. Almost none has argued with the premise of my story. But what some have argued is that those who are able to start great companies are a breed apart: misfits who we can’t expect to conform to normal behavior. Kalanick’s investors in particular (many of whom, incidentally, Pando shares) have told me that his same bad-boy behavior and arrogance is the only reason he was able to run headlong into the buzzsaw of dozens of powerful taxi lobbies.
I’ve never had much of an issue with Kalanick’s hard charging competitive nature or libertarian beliefs. But this sexism and misogyny is something different and scary. Women drive Ubers and ride in them. I don’t know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn’t respect us or prioritize our safety.
We are used to intimidation here. We’ve had sources try to intimidate Pando into silence by withholding access, threatening $300 million lawsuits, spreading lies about our relationships with our backers– or even suggesting that we’re funded by the CIA. We have mobs unleashed on us on Twitter, seemingly weekly.
So my concern wasn’t more lies winding up online about me. Sadly, I’ve had to get used to it. My concern was that the nature of these lies weren’t the same trumped up bullshit about Pando being influenced by its investors. That smear hasn’t worked, and we share several investors with Uber, so that dog doesn’t exactly hunt.
No, these new attacks threatened to hit at my only vulnerability. The only part of my life that I’d do anything to protect: My family and my children.
In that moment outside an Indian restaurant in London, I stood numb listening to Smith asking me if I had a comment, and I thought of my kids. They were somewhere covered in kitten and dinosaur pajamas giggling and running through the house in a last ditch effort to fight bedtime. Maybe they were looking up at the moon, remembering how many times I’ve told them I’d always be somewhere looking at the same moon even if I couldn’t be there to rock them.
I had two thoughts. The first was: What possible comment could I give Smith to sum up the terror I felt over an attack at my family?
And then this: Please, God, let this be how bad it gets. Please let the worst of this be that I have to one day have the “Mommy has a lot of people who hate her because of what she writes…” conversation with them.
I begged no deity in particular that the escalation of dangerous, win-at-all-costs, no-matter-the-casualties warfare Uber has waged on anyone– drivers, riders, or journalists– who crosses them could just end here. That it could just end with a wild plan of lies and character assassination of me, personally. I could weather that.
Sadly, I don’t see any reason to think it will. Unless forces more powerful than me in the Valley– or even Washington DC– see this latest horror as a wakeup call and decide this is enough. That the First Amendment and rights of journalists do matter. That companies shouldn’t be allowed to go to illegal lengths to defame and silence reporters. That all these nice words about gender equality in tech aren’t just token board appointments every once in a while. That professional women in this industry actually deserve respect. That they shouldn’t be bullied with the same old easy slurs about bitchiness or sexual objectification. That deep scary misogyny in a culture isn’t something that you hire a campaign manager to “message out” of a founder, nor is it something you excuse as genius at work. That there is a line someone can cross, even amid an era where the Valley believes founders can never be fired.
Simply put: That this isn’t OK.
I’ve seen other times the Valley’s greed has tiptoed into this range. It came out that HP pretexted reporters, illegally spying on them to find out where leaks were coming from. There was the time that Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to persuade journalists to attack Google. And we’ve chronicled a shocking wage collusion suit that unfairly suppressed the wages of millions.
Each time the Valley’s soul was pulled back to center not because the bad actors in question suddenly had a crisis of confidence, but because powerful forces made them recalibrate. HP was hauled into court. Facebook was exposed in the press and shamed into changing tactics. And the only reason the wage collusion pact didn’t ultimately succeed was because emerging powerhouses like Facebook and LinkedIn refused to take part. That’s still winding its way through the courts, and the victims may eventually get something close to restitution.
Uber’s dangerous escalation of behavior has just had its whistleblower moment, and tellingly, the whistleblower wasn’t a staffer with a conscience, it was an executive boasting about the proposed plan. It’s gone so far, that there are those in the company who don’t even realize this is something you try to cover up. It’s like a five-year-old pretending to be Frank Underwood. Only one with billions of dollars of assets at his disposal.
We’ve seen it in CEO Travis Kalanick’s comments that he calls the company “boober” because of all the tail he gets since running it.
A now-deleted tweet by Uber’s General Manager in New York City, Josh Mohrer, suggests the answer may be no. Earlier this afternoon, Mohrer tweeted a picture of some happy-looking members of Uber’s New York office with the caption, “Shake it off @Uber_NYC style. #HatersGonnaHate.”
“Shake if off,” as you may or may not know, is a reference to a Taylor Swift song about gleefully “shaking off” unfair criticisms people lob your way. “Haters gonna hate” is a popular phraseology applied to similar effect — only here it’s used to label the tech community’s near-unanimous scorn for Michael’s comments as indicative of some vendetta, or perhaps jealousy, toward the $18 billion company. It’s a familiar tactic — Label your critics, whether their critiques are legitimate or not, as catty negative trolls who have simply been drinking too much haterade.
Last night, Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith caused a stir when he reported on comments by Uber executive Emil Michael suggesting the company might hire opposition researchers to dig into the personal lives of journalists who criticize the company. Now Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has taken to Twitter to distance himself and his company from the comments. Yet significantly, his comments don’t include any indication that Michael will be fired — or face any sort of disciplinary action.