As Uber comes under fire, does the tech world take social responsibility seriously?

Uber has had a bad week, with accusations of sexism, dirty tricks and data misuse. Do startups need to compete at all costs - or should we think about all the impact we have?

This has not been an edifying week for the tech industry. Accusations have been flying backwards and forwards between the journalism and the tech worlds, over the behaviour of Uber, or specifically one of its executives. Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily has been outspokenly critical of Uber for showing what she considers to be sexist attitudes.

Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith then ran a story suggesting that Uber’s senior vice president of business had told people at an Uber-hosted dinner the company should invest $1m in “oppositional research” – digging up dirt on journalists – and specifically Lacy – to silence or discredit them:

Over dinner, he outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, 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.

Not surprisingly, Lacy was not happy. And who can blame her? Any parent would get extremely uncomfortable of talk of their family being investigated.

Now, I must admit to some bias here. I’m a journalist – and talk of treating journalists like that to stop them doing their job is not something I’m comfortable with. But I like to think I’d still be uncomfortable with this kind of behaviour even if I wasn’t. This doesn’t feel like a positive way for a company to deal with criticism. This feels like a company happy to win at any cost – and with whatever corporate culture allows that.

Are we comfortable with a tech industry deeply invested in dirty tricks?

With great disruption comes great responsibility

Uber – and its competitors like Lyft – have been a boon to many of us. They’ve made it easier to get a car ride in a big city, made it simple to pay and made the whole process a more enjoyable one. But it has made a lot of people – including the existing taxi operators and politicians – unhappy. Antagonising the press and public at a time when its fighting legislative battles on multiple fronts seems, well, curious to say the least.

Uber has apologised – but done no more than that.

Meanwhile, another criticism of the company has emerged:

The latest Uberite in hot water is Josh Mohrer, the general manager of Uber New York, who BuzzFeed reports is under investigation for accessing customer logs belonging to one of its writers on at least two occasions. Mohrer is said to have pulled the information from ‘God View’, an Uber tool that provides an overview of customers riding its transportation network in real-time, as well as access to their account history.

And people – including celebrities – are publicly removing Uber from their phones. Many sites are posting guides on closing your account entirely.

Criticism of the company is moving into the mainstream – and that’s not going to help customer numbers or political lobbying.

Startup Social Responsibility

Capitalism is often a Darwinian business – but do we have a responsibility to resist the excesses of that and strive to make the world better with the often lucrative tools we build? Anil Dash, long term blogger and founder of ThinkUp suggests we do:

So for those of us who are still idealistic about tech, there’s only one thing we can do. We can try to make the web we want to see. For lack of a better term, it’s a “good” web. Not the best! Maybe there are better things. And not the only web! Because even if they’re kind of terrible sometimes, Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Pinterest and Tumblr and all the rest are also kinda great a lot of the time.

This is not, Dash suggests, an easy path. You can’t take funding as easily, and have to make hard choices along the way:

Let me tell you something: This stuff can be fucking awful. Even with all the effort and support and sheer love that we get by making things for the web that we think will make the web better, it can be grueling and there’s a reason most websites are the equivalent of fast food instead of home-cooked meals.

But he thinks it’s worth it. And perhaps – this week at least – some people at Uber will be regretting the more aggressive choices they’ve made. What might have seemed like justifiably ruthless decisions in the short-term may well prove to handicap the company’s ability to grow.

Yes, we need to do disruptive things, because that’s what tech does. Yes, we need to make money – because businesses aren’t sustainable unless we do so. But there’s an old-fashioned buzzword from the corporate world that might have some resonance here: corporate social responsibility.

We all exist as part of society – and businesses thrive in social environments that allow them to go. Acknowledging corporate responsibility is just acknowledging that we’re part of integrated society in a self-interested but still useful way. And perhaps startup culture needs more of that.

If we ignore the cultural consequences of the choices we make, we run the risk of becoming the new cultural tyrants of tech – and creating a worse world than the one we found. And who wants that as their legacy?

Photo by Alexander Torrenegra, and used under a Creative Commons licence