Column

Uber can't sweep exec's revenge campaign under the car mat

Revenge campaign isn't just an Uber issue; it's an industry issue

Consumers, by and large, are trusting online companies to handle their personal data with at least a modicum of respect and privacy. That attitude could change in a flash — just ask Target.

Comments like those made by Emil Michael, senior vice president of business for the ride service Uber, should give technology executives everywhere the shudders — and least those serious about their reputations.

At a dinner party in New York on Friday night, Michael suggested that Uber consider spending “a million dollars” to hire opposition researchers and journalists to dig into the “personal lives” and “families” of Uber’s media critics, according to a guest who was there. Michael singled out one by name, Sarah Lacy, editor of the PandoDaily website.

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FOR THE RECORD

Nov. 18, 1:27 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said the dinner party where the remarks were made occurred Monday night. The dinner party was on Friday.

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The guest was an editor at BuzzFeed, which ran a story about it.

Uber quickly distanced itself from the comments, saying nothing of the sort had ever been discussed. “Any such activity would be clear violations of our privacy and data access policies,” an Uber spokesperson said.

Without taking issue with the story itself, Michael issued an apology: “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. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them.”

If Uber is hoping the matter will be swept under the car mat and forgotten, that’s unlikely to happen. Uber possesses information on its customers, not just credit card numbers, but information on where they’re going and where they’ve been.

The BuzzFeed story didn’t say that Michael planned to use such info in any anti-journalist campaign, but it’s easy to see how such data could be abused in the hands of a vengeful executive.

If anyone is compiling a collection of absurd corporate apologies, they should cut and paste Michael’s, because it’s a classic.

First, he notes that he spoke at a private dinner party, as if that should excuse what he said. He goes on to say his comments “do not reflect my actual views” – but he doesn’t say whose views they reflect, if not his own.

It might be easy to accept Michael’s dinner comments as a dinner party tossoff, a quip, a bad joke. But it looks like Michael had been thinking the plan through, and in detail. He had a budget amount, division of labor and staffing level for his smear team — four opposition researchers, and four journalists, according to the BuzzFeed report.

At best, the plan he shared was thoughtless. At worst, it’s sinister. Michael tarnished Uber’s reputation. Executives at other tech companies should hope it doesn’t tarnish theirs.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

About

Russ Mitchell is the Times' technology editor. 

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