Home >Companies >Uber is no stranger to controversies

San Francisco-based ride-share start-up Uber Technologies Inc. has been lauded for transforming existing taxi services in many of the 43 countries where it operates. But the company is not a stranger to controversy. Uber, valued at $18.2 billion, has been criticized for an allegedly misogynistic culture and having no regard for privacy.

The latest controversy around the start-up erupted on Monday when Buzzfeed reporter Ben Smith wrote about how Uber’s senior vice president Emil Michael suggested that “the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in media."

Michael made these comments during a dinner organized in New York by the company. Uber said it had failed to tell the gathering that conversations during the dinner would be off the record. Michael said at the dinner that the team would 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.

Michael issued a statement later, saying he regretted the remarks he made and that they don’t reflect his actual views. Travis Kalanick, chief executive at Uber, in a tweet said, “Emil’s comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company." But he also added that “I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them – myself included and that also goes for Emil." Actor and Uber investor Ashton Kutcher, while defending the company, tweeted: “What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist?" He added, “Questioning the source needs to happen...Always!" His tweet-storm continued with this, “So as long as journalist are interested and willing to print half truths as facts...Yes we should question the source." In a classic “retweets are not endorsements" type disclaimer, Kutcher said that he spoke for himself and not the company, in this case Uber.

Here’s a list of controversies Uber has landed itself into over the years.

1.“Hot Chicks" campaign: Uber’s Lyon office released a sexist ad campaign which hooked passengers with “hot chick" drivers through the app. The app was called “Avions de Chasse" which means “fighter jets" in English. According to Buzzfeed, Uber cancelled the campaign and called it “a clear misjudgement by the local team."

2.Sabotaging the competition: Lyft Inc., the Uber competitor, accused the company of sabotaging its operations by making bookings and then cancelling them. Uber denied these allegations but CNN Money reported that Uber employees around the country ordered 5,560 Lyft rides and then cancelled them.

But later on The Verge confirmed that such tactics are part of Uber’s playbook to sabotage its competitors. “Uber is arming teams of independent contractors with burner phones and credit cards as part of its sophisticated effort to undermine Lyft and other competitors," said the report. These contractors are called “brand ambassadors" and are asked to take the competitors’ rides to recruit and influence drivers to join Uber.

3. Legal challenges: The old-school taxi services and central banks are not very happy with Uber disrupting the public transport space. The company is locked in legal tussles across the globe over its business model and payment methods. Germany has banned Uber services in its cities saying it breaches local legislation. Uber is under investigation in Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Philippines, the UK and the US for infringement of the rights of existing taxi holders, ownership and payment system. India’s apex bank issued “security issues and risk mitigation measures related to Card Not Present transactions" probably targeting Uber. Reserve Bank of India said companies using app-based purchases methods can’t allow customers to pay with their credit cards without a two-step authentication process. It is also under the scanner of the service tax department in India.

4.Driver behaviour: Uber had been in a tight spot not once but on many occasions thanks to its drivers. A slew of cases have been filed against Uber drivers on account of abduction, sexual and physical assault. In December 2013, a driver who worked for Uber ran over and killed Sofia Liu, a six-year-old girl, injuring her mother and brother severely. The family claimed that the driver was between fares on the Uber ride-sharing app. Uber denied any involvement in the incident.

Alexandra Craigle tweeted a screenshot of the messages she exchanged with the Uber driver. Photo: Twitter
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Alexandra Craigle tweeted a screenshot of the messages she exchanged with the Uber driver. Photo: Twitter

The taxi firm is often accused of not performing a thorough background check on its drivers like the traditional and established taxi services do.

5.Cover-ups: In September 2013, a customer accused Uber that its driver choked her. Uber CEO Kalanick in an internal email to the PR team instructed them on how to handle such incidents and the email by mistake landed up in the inbox of tech blogger Nitasha Tiku. The exchange between Tiku and the company have been documented in a blog by her in which the company calls her an “Internet troll."

6.Surge Pricing: During Hurricane Sandy, Uber reinstated surge pricing mechanism for its services. In simple words, a driver was free to ask any price he wanted to ferry people from one point to another. The cab fares during those days doubled from normal fares. After many complaints, the company decided to put a cap on surge pricing in emergencies.

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