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Uber has an asshole problem

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  1. Uber vice president Emil Michael mused aloud about the possibility of the company conducting opposition research on hostile journalists, reports Ben Smith of Buzzfeed.
  2. Michael was especially concerned about Sarah Lacy's coverage at Pando Daily.
  3. Smith also reports that "the general manager of Uber NYC accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies."
  4. This is the latest in a long series of controversies for the company, whose basic business model often puts it in conflict with incumbent taxi companies and regulators.
  5. CEO Travis Kalanick has sort of apologized for the remarks, but isn't disciplining anyone or otherwise altering how Uber works structurally.

Uber has an asshole problem

When Uber got off the ground as a company, its business had an unusual problem. In many markets where it was operating, it was violating the letter of the law. And in essentially all markets where it was operating, it was violating the spirit of the law. That's because the "spirit" of the prevailing taxi regulations was, almost everywhere, wrong and pernicious. Alongside regulations aimed at promoting public safety, almost every city and state is burdened with rules designed to protect the incomes of incumbent taxi license holders.

Uber's business was (and is) to destroy the value of those licenses by opening up the rides-for-hire market to a potentially unlimited supply of vehicles and drivers.

It's a perfectly good idea for the world, but you never could have gotten it off the ground by asking permission first. Even where Uber's business didn't violate existing rules, it undermined the (pernicious) purpose of those rules and rules could always be changed to exclude it. Consequently, the company benefitted enormously from a "shoot first, ask questions later" mindset.

But dispositions that are functional and useful in one context can become rancid in another. A conviction that the rules don't (or shouldn't) apply to you is fine when you're battling a taxi mogul who compares your business to ISIS. But it's extremely unattractive when you start talking about compromising customer user data for the purposes of blackmail. And it's completely insane when that kind of recklessness leads you to talk to journalists about the oppo tactics you're planning to deploy against other journalists.

Time for Uber to grow up

As Uber gets bigger and more established, its executives can look less like brash upstarts and more like assholes. Moves like hiring former top Obama advisor David Plouffe, show that the company is hardly on the outside looking in. It has a valuation of $18 billion, and clear aspirations to move beyond the ride business to a broader array of "urban logistics" operations.

That's all great. But to succeed at that level, the company needs to grow up.

Users really are entrusting the company with a lot of personal information about their comings and goings. If Uber wants to play a broader role in customers' lives, the volume of data available to the company will grow even further. Privacy concerns are nothing new in the digital economy. But serious players try to take them seriously. If executives from Google even suggested for a minute that the company might use its trove of data to blackmail enemies, the whole enterprise would be at risk of regulatory vaporization — and rightly so.

The vision of free entry into the rides-for-hire market is appealing, and it took a certain devil-may-care attitude to get it off the ground. But it is off the ground now. Uber is a major company. And it's time to start acting like it. Not all rules are made to be broken. The fact that Michaels 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.