A smoking-hot story Monday night by BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith confirmed out loud what many of Uber’s customers, affiliated drivers, and the journalists who cover it have been thinking for a while: this company is run by a gang of jerks. Smith writes that he recently attended a dinner in New York with Uber executives, one of whom, Emil Michael, suggested that the company conduct opposition research on journalists who dare to take a skeptical or critical approach to its ride-sharing and other urban logistic ventures. Of Michael’s plotting, Smith writes:
Over dinner, he outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.
Since former Silicon Valley knockaround Travis Kalanick launched Uber, the company has branded itself as the small-time sufferer of taxicab cartels and excessive regulation. While it still fights city governments when it introduces ride-sharing services in new burgs, it’s time for Uber to drop the victimhood act. The company, which keeps getting venture-capital infusions, is worth at least $18 billion, employs 1,700 people around the world directly (including nearly 100 in Washington), and dispatches an undisclosed number of private drivers. Its valuation is more than 20 times the size of its closest competitor, Lyft. And it’s exhibiting the worst kind of corporate-behemoth behavior.
Uber’s a long way from its tiny startup days. Flush with cash and global reach, Kalanick told a conference in May that Uber was in an open-ended war against “an asshole named Taxi.” A month later, Uber ostensibly started trying to class itself up by hiring former Obama campaign mastermind David Plouffe and launching publicity-friendly efforts like using former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to recruit veterans as UberX drivers. It wins itself fawning social-media praise with stunts like kitten delivery and allowing customers to force their drivers to play their Spotify playlists. (I hope all you drivers are all about that bass, because you’re going to be hearing a lot of Meghan Trainor on repeat.)
Behind the scenes, as we now know, Uber has been playing a much seedier game. Its employees spent months trying to run competitors, especially Lyft, out of the game by jamming their networks with thousands of phony ride requests. It cut its fares—good for customers—while also increasing the cut it takes from drivers after completed rides. It ran a promotion in France using a local escort service. And, yes, it started stalking its critics, especially female ones like Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy, who writes today that she no longer feels safe using Uber.
Of the 200 cities where Uber operates, none has received more attention than Washington. The company’s launch in DC in late 2011 was received like a West Coast godsend with overwhelming enthusiasm from a public sick of nearly 7,000 taxis that didn’t take credit cards, refused to drive to certain neighborhoods, and neglected to pick up people of color. Reactions like the DC Taxicab Commission’s “sting” operation on Uber’s black-car service only won the company more fans, and set up the company’s many legislative wins excusing it from government oversight. Broadway casting agents couldn’t have come up with someone as good as Ron Linton, the taxi commission’s chairman, to embody fusty, municipal regulation. And between Washington’s higher-than-average population of journalists and policymakers, plus the natural voyeurism that comes with being the nation’s capital, Uber news in DC frequently went national and international, and almost always to the company’s benefit. (Trust me, I wrote a lot of it.)
But, as Washingtonians know better than most, political momentum can shift and hit you back squarely in the face, and that’s now what Uber is facing, not just as a global abstract, but from its customers on the ground. Some of Uber’s earliest fans are shuddering away from the company after hearing about its schemes against Lyft or its machinations of spying on its detractors.
“Things like that are kind of frightening,” says Shawn Jain, a Shaw resident who signed up for Uber in early 2012 when it was just a black-car service. “It’s a little scary to think of how they are becoming a Walmart type of big corporation that is going above and beyond to get a stranglehold on the ride-sharing and taxi market.”
Getting compared to Walmart, notorious for its cheap wares and cheaper labor practices, is typically one of the crueler insults to heave at a corporation, but in Uber’s case, it’s a comfortable fit. Even today, there’s fresh news about Uber trying to jerk around an otherwise good cause. WAMU reports that the company is throwing up objections to a DC Council bill that would offer ride-sharing drivers $10,000 tax credits to purchase wheelchair-accessible vehicles. But Uber, as zealous of its business as ever, objects to requirements that it supply to city officials the number of physically disabled passengers it services, putting it at odds with groups like the United Spinal Association. Nice.
Still, Uber has carved its way into ubiquity, and it’s tough to see many people abandoning it over its shoddy behavior. Other corporations get away with much worse.
“We all put a premium on convenience, and they offer a great service,” says Jain, who adds that while he’s mostly switched over to Lyft and traditional taxis, he probably won’t zap Uber’s app from his phone. “But people shouldn’t feel like their only option is Uber.”
Not that long ago, Uber was the new option. Today it seems like the asshole, but one we might be stuck with.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.