Uber exec Emil Michael threatens to dig dirt on company critics, unleashing ...
In the gun: Emil Michael, senior vice president for Business for Uber. Photo: Bloomberg
It was a truly spectacular own goal scored by one of the most senior executives of one of the tech world's hottest companies in the presence of two famous journalists in a semi-private club owned by the Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter.
At the dinner on Friday night the executive, Emil Michael, a senior vice president at Uber, the car hire tech that has risen from start-up to $US17 billion international giant in four years, declared to the table that the company should spend a million dollars hiring private investigators to dig up dirt on journalists to silence them.
The group, gathered the Waverley Inn in Manhattan's West Village, included the actor, Ed Norton, and the Huffington Post publisher, Ariana Huffington, as well as the journalists Michael Wolff and Buzzfeed's Ben Smith. Michael's own boss was there too, the Uber chief executive and founder, Travis Kalinick. The host was Ian Osborne, a former adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron as well as an Uber consultant.
Some time in the course of the meal Michael began to vent his frustration at journalists who had dared to criticise Uber, a company that has grown from unknown start-up to a giant and struck fear into the heart of the taxi industry around the world.
Michael, Buzzfeed reported, was particularly frustrated by one female journalist, Sarah Lacy, who runs the popular Silicon Valley website PandoDaily. She has criticised Uber for having an allegedly sexist culture and for putting female passengers at risk by not vetting its drivers thoroughly enough.
Recently she wrote that she was deleting her Uber app as a result.
At the dinner Michael was outraged and, according to Buzzfeed, said that Uber's dirt diggers could be used to 'prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life'.
After the dinner Michael said in a statement: '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.'
But the comments are attracting significant attention, in part because they appear to confirm the growing popular notion that Uber is becoming recklessly aggressive.
The founder, Travis Kalinick, has never been one to back down from a fight. In 2012 he explained to Fairfax Media that in each city Uber began operating in it met the same regulatory resistance from entrenched taxi monopolies or oligopolies with the same cosy relationship with city or state governments.
Uber - and Kalinick - appeared to take delight in combating these opponents and Uber's users cheered him on.
Once you have signed up for the Uber app you can summon a car at the press of a button and know with certainty that it will come, when it will come and that it will wait for you. Uber users commonly report better, cheaper, more reliable service in cleaner cars by friendlier drivers than they get from taxi companies. And with the domineering old players like CabCharge cut out of the loop, drivers often reported earning more with Uber than they had a taxi drivers.
Recently the New York Times wrote that Uber was changing the very fabric of life in Los Angeles because it was allowing people to return to the public transport starved downtown areas. A Washington Post blog noted that Uber had become the transport method of choice for US politicians and their staff, a sure sign the company was not going to be regulated out of existence.
But there is a growing sense that its aggression in combating regulators has become part of Uber's posture towards critics, media, its drivers and its competition.
The Verge website reported that Uber was using teams of agents with disposable mobile phones accounts and credit cards to disrupt competitors like Lyft by making false calls for rides.
Last month Uber's drivers in New York went on strike saying their pay had shrunk 25 per cent as Uber sought to undercut its rivals. 'Uber makes billions on the backs of drivers. We own the cars, we pay for gas, we pay for maintenance, we suffer the depreciation and we take all of the risks,' one protest flier proclaimed, the New York Post reported.
In a series of tweets since the Buzzfeed report Kalinick has apologised for Michael's remarks at dinner, saying they showed a 'showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity and a departure from our values and ideals' and that they 'do not represent the company'. He noted that Michael's 'duties here at Uber do not involve communications strategy or plans and are not representative in any way of the company approach'.
There was no suggestion that Michael might be looking for a new job, nor is there any sense that his comments will have any long-term impact on the company. But it has added to a general perception that the young company, flushed with extraordinary success, has a cultural problem.
Perhaps the news site Vox captured it best with a comment piece called 'Uber has an a__hole problem.'
'Uber is a major company,' wrote Vox. 'And it's time to start acting like it. Not all rules are made to be broken. The fact that Michael is getting a kind of verbal scolding rather than suffering real consequences suggests that maybe the company's board and CEO still don't get that.'