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[Newsmaker] Uber exec under fire

An executive at Uber Technologies Inc. is facing criticism for saying that the mobile car-booking startup should hire a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists who scrutinize the company.

Emil Michael, Uber’s senior vice president of business, was speaking at a dinner in New York last week that included BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, who reported on the comments yesterday. Michael suggested the San Francisco-based company was willing to spend a million dollars to look into journalists’ personal lives, according to BuzzFeed’s article.

Uber, which fetched a valuation of $17 billion in a funding round in June, has been expanding operations at a breakneck pace since it debuted in 2009, offering services in more than 220 cities worldwide. The company has disrupted established taxi and limousine industries, with customers using their smartphones to book car services. Uber’s efforts to promote and boost its business have drawn the attention of some regulators, as well as media outlets. 
A user scans for an available vehicle using the Uber Technologies’ app on a smartphone in London. (Bloomberg)
A user scans for an available vehicle using the Uber Technologies’ app on a smartphone in London. (Bloomberg)

“Emil’s comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company,” Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive officer, said in a tweet.

The remarks were a departure from the company’s values and ideals, Kalanick said, adding that Michael’s duties at Uber do not involve communications strategy or planning.

Personal threats are “often the last ditch resort to try to get journalists to dial down their intense scrutiny,” said Kelly McBride, vice president at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida. “It’s not uncommon when you challenge authority that authority fights back.”

Michael said in a statement that he regretting making the remarks, which he said were “borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company.”

The executive focused in particular on reporting by Sarah Lacy, the editor of PandoDaily, a technology news website, BuzzFeed reported. Lacy had written several stories critical of Uber’s business practices.

Lacy responded to Michael’s comments in a column, saying the incident reflected a “morally bankrupt” culture at Uber. Lacy later updated the column to say that Michael contacted her and apologized.

BuzzFeed’s article and Lacy’s response, shared widely via social media, reflects the public’s interest in personal narratives, according to McBride.

“The audience tends to be drawn to personal narratives, so when a reporter writes from personal experience that tends to get more of a response in social media because it’s more human,” McBride said.

Michael’s talk also raised concerns that Uber might use its data on journalist customers against them, because its privacy policy lets employees access data for “legitimate business purposes.” Smith gave an example of the company pulling up a BuzzFeed journalist’s account without her permission. Uber Tuesday clarified its privacy policy, saying employees would only access data for issues like monitoring for fraudulent activity and solving problems.

“The policy is also clear that access to rider and driver accounts is being closely monitored and audited by data security specialists on an ongoing basis,” the company said in a blog post Tuesday. “Any violations of the policy will result in disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination and legal action.” (Bloomberg)
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