An executive for the taxi-hailing smartphone app Uber suggested at a private, elite dinner that his company could dig up humiliating facts about journalists to punish and silence them when they criticize the multibillion-dollar startup. Press freedom advocates were furious when the comments emerged, and company leaders frantically apologized Tuesday, promising they would never really use such tactics.
The executive, Emil Michael, said at the dinner last Friday that his company only needed a million dollars, four journalists and four researchers to uncover facts about journalists’ “personal lives” and “families.”
“Nobody would know it was us,” Michael said when asked if the plan could backfire, according to a report published Monday on news website Buzzfeed.
Some of the loudest criticism of the popular smartphone application, which lets users order cars based on driver rankings and location, has come from one Silicon Valley journalist, Pando Daily editor Sarah Lacy.
Michael singled out Lacy as a target for the company’s hypothetical dirt-digging campaign. There is no evidence Uber has begun this kind of research, and the company has denied it ever has or will.
Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said Michael’s statements show how some tech companies have a noxious culture of trying to use and manipulate journalists while ignoring their questions about issues such as privacy and security.
“There is a resistance to answering tough questions,” Timm said.
“Any time a company executive or a government official threatens to investigate and destroy a journalist because they wrote something they didn’t like is cause for extreme concern,” Timm added. “And Uber issued an apology, but the guy who said these horrible comments is still working for them. They didn’t fire him. And so if they really want to prove that this behavior isn’t tolerated, then they can fire the executive who said it.”
Some of Lacy’s accusations against Uber are serious. She has written that the company does not care enough for the safety of female passengers, at least one of whom reportedly suffered an assault by a company driver. She has urged women to follow her lead by deleting the Uber app from their phones. She has also accused the company’s public relations team of running campaigns against women who allege assaults, trying to discredit them as being drunk or provocatively dressed.
Lacy has also alleged that Uber fosters a culture of misogyny, and has condemned what she calls an “ever worsening frat culture” at the company —part of a larger problem of women being pushed out of the tech world.
This time, however, Lacy felt like the attack was personal.
“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,” Lacy wrote Monday after Michael’s comments were reported.
Michael made the remarks at the Waverly Inn in New York City, where a Buzzfeed editor, Ben Smith, happened to be present. Smith wrote that Michael said Lacy should be “personally responsible” for women who come to harm after taking regular taxis instead of Uber cars. He has since apologized to her on Twitter.
“The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner — borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for — do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company’s views or approach,” Michael said in a statement issued to Buzzfeed through Uber.
“They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them,” he said.
Uber had not replied to multiple requests for comment from Al Jazeera by the time of publication.
According to Lacy, Michael called her after she wrote about the Buzzfeed piece, something she considered odd since they had never spoken by phone before. She said he wanted to speak off the record, but Lacy refused that condition. Michael hung up. She wrote that she later received an apology from Michael by email.
“I wanted to apologize to you directly — I am sorry. I was at an event and was venting, but what I said was never intended to describe actions that would ever be undertaken by me or my company toward you or anyone else,” Michael wrote, according to a story Lacy posted Monday.
“I was definitively wrong and I feel terrible about any distress I have caused you,” he reportedly wrote. “Again, I am sorry.”
In a series of thirteen rapid-fire tweets posted Tuesday afternoon, Uber’s Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick slammed his colleague for what he said.
“Emil's comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company. His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideal,” Kalanick said. “I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them — myself included,” Kalanick tweeted, “and that also goes for Emil … ”
Kalanick himself recently came under fire, from Lacy and others, after he used the word “Boober” in a GQ magazine interview to describe how his success in business has helped him romance women.
Timm, of the Press Freedom Foundation, said the best outcome for the incident would be companies realizing they can’t punish or silence reporters. He said he is confident that tech companies won’t pursue destructive tactics against them.
“I think the idea that anybody could think they could kind of threaten an entire industry to not report critically on them is a little far-fetched to begin with,” Timm said. “And, given the reaction, something, they’ll hopefully never think of again.”