Travis Kalanick is the guy behind Uber, a company that's spawned into an almost-$20-billion empire since its launch in 2009. He's also kind of a tool. That was immediately obvious to anyone who read his March 2014 GQ profile, in which he used "hashtag winning" as the substitute for a sentence and implied to a reporter that he was getting laid so much that one could use the word "Boob-er" to describe his lifestyle.
But Uber's executives are truly apart from the rest of the alpha-male, mega-rich computer nerds. They're in a whole other echelon of dickdom, a fact that was confirmed by a BuzzFeed report Monday night that quoted Uber Senior Vice President Emil Michael suggesting the company dig up dirt on journalists who've been critical of the company. The idea was to give us muckraking smearmongers a taste of our own medicine.
Although Uber's proponents tout the company as an essentially democratic enterprise that provides entrepreneurial opportunity for drivers and eliminates the cumbersome regulatory red tape of the taxi industry, Michael doesn't really seem to value the idea of a democratic free press.
But although Michael's remarks are making headlines around the world right now, this is far from the first time that Uber's questionable business practices have been called into practice this year. Let's look back.
They're Trying to Take 50,000 Vets for a Ride
In September, the company launched UberMILITARY, which aims to hire 50,000 veterans, which amounts to roughly one-quarter of all the unemployed vets from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the goal may seem laudable enough, the "jobs" Uber is offering aren't quite the opportunity the company has promised. As one recruit told The Verge, "Uber promises a good job, but in reality it's a very precarious way to make a living. I'm looking for a new job, and there's no way I would recommend this life to other vets."
If anything, UberMILITARY seems more like a patriotism-soaked PR move at the expense of a vulnerable and needy population. In fact, Kalanick has said that he can't wait for the moment when he can get rid of "the other dude in the car" (as in, the driver) and replace them with robots. Which should give you a sense of how much the company values its new veteran hires.
And while the company claims each of its drivers is a small business owner, it reserves the right to change their cuts and to terminate people for seemingly arbitrary infractions. And they famously won't release the medium income of these "business owners". Therefore, some people report making as little as $12 an hour all while being terrified of losing their livelihood over a bad passenger rating. Thanks for your service, and welcome back to America.
When They Compared Their Females Drivers to Hookers
In October, Uber launched an app that promised to pair male customers with sexy female drivers. "Who said women don't know how to drive?" asked ads for the promotion, which was launched by the company's office in Lyon, France. The fantasy rides had a 20-minute time limit, for reasons that are unclear.
Thanks to a media backlash, the creepy promo never actually rolled out. "They didn't anticipate the reaction of Uber US," said Pierre Garonnaire, co-founder of Avions de Chasse, the escort service that co-sponsored the idea."In the US, you are more Puritan. For me and most of the people of France, it was a good [idea]. It was fun."
That point is up for debate, but the promo didn't do much to quell Uber's reputation for not giving much of a fuck about the safety of women in its cars. On the flip side of the equation, female customers are still frequently complaining that male drivers are harassing them and somehow managing to learn their identities.
Hiding Cut-Throat Tactics Behind 'Libertarian' Ideals
Among the technorati, Uber has gained accolades for its "disruptive" technology, and its relentless quest to wage an insurgency against the politicians and taxi industry regulators who stand in its way. But it has also used those ideas as cover for the sneaky-as-fuck tactics Uber employs to shut down its competition. Like, for instance, giving "brand ambassadors" burner phones to order and then cancel rides from its rival, Lyft. That's not exactly letting the best guy win or letting the bad performers get naturally weeded out by a free market.
There's also the matter of Uber putting career drivers out of business. In Miami and other places where ride-sharing services are illegal, members of taxi unions are trying in vain to preserve their livelihoods, for which they fronted lots of money to pay for costly medallions. In London, black cab drivers spend years studying for what some people consider the most difficult "knowledge" test in the world, and they're now facing possible extinction from unqualified newcomers.
And Now They're Attacking Critical Journalists
Unsurprisingly, Uber's faced a ton of criticism from the media. One of the most vocal critics has been Sarah Lacy, who edits the website PandoDaily. In a widely shared article that came out in October, Lacy wrote that she was deleting the Uber app because it promoted "asshole culture". In Michael's dinner party speech, he reportedly targeted Lacy in particular, floating the idea of hiring investigators to uncover details of her personal life. He even went so far as to say that if any woman reading Lacy's column decided to take a regular taxi instead of using Uber, and was subsequently sexually assaulted, it would be Lacy's fault.
After the PR nightmare, Kalanick tried to distance himself, and the company at large, from Michael's remarks. Just past 2PM on Tuesday, he issued an apology. "Emil's comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company," he wrote in a response on Twitter. "I will do everything in my power to towards the goal of earning [back] that trust."