Uber and the Troubling Ethics of Silicon Valley

Image credit Forbes

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber (Image credit: Forbes)

That Uber is a brilliant innovation and has brought about much needed disruption into the taxi and transportation industry is not in question. But how their CEO runs the company, the culture he has created and the business practices he promotes are an issue that investors, customers and the press have turned a blind eye to for far too long.

For years, it has been an open secret in Silicon Valley that Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, is a completely unethical man who also lacks integrity and leadership skills. That he runs Uber like a misogynistic frat house is a well-documented fact. Kalanick has boasted to GQ magazine about how Uber helped increase his sex appeal; he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: Yeah, we call that Boob-er.

Now, I am a whole hearted capitalist pig and an ardent advocate of being competitive and winning by all means but not at any cost. It should be done through innovation, improving your products and services to beat your competitors fair and square; but we should never condone winning by cheating or using unethical and underhand tactics like Uber has also done to try and derail their competitors.

Uber employees ordered and cancelled more than 5,000 rides from rival Lyft since last October. This was done in an effort to reduce availability of Lyft cars, and thus push their users towards Uber. There have been reports of abuse of rider location information through a technology called God View, which allows Uber to track the movements of every single vehicle and the passenger. Former employees have confirmed that God View was easily accessible to staff across the company.

In 2011, venture capitalist Peter Sims penned a blog post about being tracked and sent text messages from someone he barely knew; all this was done without his knowledge or consent. When Sims expressed his outrage, he was told by an Uber employee “to calm down, and that it was all a ‘cool’ event and as if I should be honoured to have been one of the chosen. Turns out his movements were being projected on a large screen at an Uber event and nobody at the company thought this was wrong.

However, while all this information has been in the public domain for many years, it has done nothing to slow down the company’s growth or attract investors. Investments have continued to pour in from the biggest names in venture capital to investment banks and even governments all over the world. Everyone seems happy to turn a blind eye to the company culture and willing to dismiss unethical practices, blatant violations of privacy and misuse of personal information; as long as it helps Uber’s commoditized offering stay ahead of its competitors. Even the tech press has remained silent or looked the other way as the company became the darling of Silicon Valley and a unicorn, a start-up valued at more than one billion dollars. Uber’s current valuation stands at around $66 billion.

For me the last straw came when Uber personally threatened a female journalist who had been writing about the consistent pattern of misogynist behaviour at the company and their unfair and possibly illegal business tactics. Her revelations followed a dinner party where a senior executive at Uber was caught on the record, boasting to his guests that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.

Ironically, the first time Uber faced any backlash from customers was for something Travis Kalanick did, which I actually applauded – being part of Trump’s advisory council. I believe the best way to safeguard democracy is by having diverse and opposing viewpoints around the President, but that is a conversation for another blog. What is ironic and tragic is that, irrespective of people’s polarising views about President Trump, prior to this point nobody seems to have had any moral, ethical or principled objections to all the things that have been openly transpiring at Uber for years.

Nobody cared about the sexist and misogynist culture Kalanick has routinely boasted about. Nobody cared about the silencing of a female journalist and others in the media. Nobody cared about violating every code of competitive ethics or unfairly hurting the income of drivers. Nobody cared about Uber’s repeated violations of privacy, and abuse of personal information to stalk and intimidate people the company did not like.

It seems that now, only when it is no longer conscionable to look the other way that people are finally expressing some shock and outrage. This follows a perfect storm of events, from seeing a video of Kalanick berating an Uber driver, to a NY Times story about Uber using a tool, called Greyball, to identify, track and evade law enforcement officials, and a compelling blog post by a former female engineer. She writes about her harrowing experiences of constantly being berated and sexually harassed by senior managers, and Uber HR and senior management’s reluctance to take action despite her repeated complaints.

It seems perfectly clear that everyone was aware, and has been complicit in encouraging this culture by doing nothing to object to it; despite the repeated and many lines crossed. The bottom line is that they were all protecting their investment and hoping that these things could be ‘handled or contained’ until an IPO happened and they were free and clear, having made hay on their initial investment.

In response to the video’s release, Uber’s CEO has said he needs leadership help, and Uber has hired former attorney general, Eric Holder, to investigate the claims of sexual harassment by the former female engineer. As of last week, only one investor publicly penned an open letter, saying that the company needs to change its ‘toxic’ culture.

The problem is that all this is too little, too late. The fact that nobody felt the need to act before, despite being aware of all these issues indicates that what is happening now is nothing more than a PR exercise to do damage control on a prized unicorn investment; now that they have absolutely no choice due to the growing negative PR.

If Travis Kalanick, or his investors, had genuinely felt the need for him to grow up, it would have happened after he called his company boob-er. If investors had truly wanted to clean up the company’s act, surely the last straw would have been Uber threatening a female journalist.

At this stage, promising to fight to change Uber’s culture and all other talk that results in no real consequences for the CEO and others in management with whom the buck stops, are totally meaningless. It is akin to letting a murderer go scot-free because he apologises and promises never to murder anyone else in cold blood.

I will only be convinced that Uber’s investors are serious when they ask Travis Kalanick to resign or they fire him. In my book, this is the only way to send a strong and clear message that this type of behaviour will no longer be tolerated by Silicon Valley.

Business success devoid of integrity and ethics is a failure for all of society.