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The latest Uber scandal, explained

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in 2013
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in 2013
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for OurTime.org

Uber is currently facing controversy for comments suggesting the company might hire researchers to dig up dirt about reporters who have been critical of the company. The incident seems to reinforce two long-standing criticisms of the company: that it has a misogynistic culture, and that it has too little respect for privacy.

Why are people upset at Uber?

The current controversy started on Monday, when Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith wrote about attending a dinner organized by an Uber consultant. The guests included celebrities such as the actor Edward Norton and media executive Arianna Huffington.

During the dinner, Uber executive Emil Michael mused (in Smith's words) about "hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media."

According to Smith, Michael singled out Sarah Lacy, editor of the technology site Pando Daily, as a potential target for this kind of snooping. Lacy is an Uber critic; last month she wrote an article called "The horrific trickle down of Asshole culture," arguing that Uber has a misogynistic culture that puts women at risk as drivers and passengers. Lacy said she was deleting her Uber app in protest over Uber's failure to take steps to safeguard women's safety. Here's how Smith described Michael's comments:

Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held "personally responsible" for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.

These ideas were purely hypothetical. Michael didn't indicate that he was planning to actually carry out his plan.

Smith was invited to the dinner by journalist Michael Wolff. In a Wednesday column about the incident, Wolff argued that Smith should have checked with him about the off-the-record nature of the event. He also argued that Smith's account is misleading, as it implies that Michael's comments were directed at the entire group rather than just Smith himself.

Why has the incident generated so much attention?

(Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Obviously, any powerful business executive would face a backlash for making comments like these. But the comments have attracted particular attention because they fit into an existing story about Uber's culture.

Uber's corporate culture has always been tolerant of breaking rules in order to succeed. Indeed, this culture was probably essential to Uber's success; without it, Uber probably wouldn't have been able to break up the cartels that controlled the taxi business in most American cities. But a growing number of critics have been arguing that Uber's macho culture has a dark side.

Michael's comments reinforced two specific criticisms that people had already been making about Uber. One is that the company has a misogynistic culture that causes it to under-invest in protecting the safety of women who use Uber as drivers and passengers. Uber has been accused of having lax procedures for checking potential drivers' backgrounds, and for not taking assault allegations seriously.

Critics have also raised concerns about Uber's commitment to customer privacy. Uber has been accused of using a screen called "God view" to show the locations of prominent Uber customers at parties. Buzzfeed reporter Johana Bhuiyan says that an Uber executive accessed information about the use of Uber without asking permission. Bhuiyan reported that "two former Uber employees, both of whom worked at the company until this spring and requested anonymity, said that God View was easily accessible to staff across the company."

How has Uber responded?

Travis Kalanick. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Clumsily. Michael says he didn't know the comments were on the record (Smith says he wasn't told the dinner was off the record until afterward). Michael told Buzzfeed that he regretted the comments and that "they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views."

After Lacy wrote a post about the incident, Michael called her and asked to speak to her off the record. When she insisted that their conversation be on the record, he hung up and sent her an apology by email instead.

The day after Smith published his story, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick made a statement about the incident on Twitter. He said Michaels's comments were "terrible and do not represent the company," and that the comments "showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals."

Yikes! Does that mean Michael is going to get fired?

It doesn't seem that way. "I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them – myself included," Kalanick wrote. "And that also goes for Emil."

What else has Uber done to respond to criticism?

On Tuesday, in an apparent bid to head off criticism of its privacy practices, Uber posted on its blog about its privacy policy. The post said that Uber employees were only allowed to look at customer data for "a limited set of legitimate business purposes."

Uber said that "access to rider and driver accounts is being closely monitored and audited by data security specialists on an ongoing basis, and any violations of the policy will result in disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination and legal action."

On Wednesday, as Uber was trying to tamp down controversy, Uber investor Ashton Kutcher fanned the flames:

He clarified that "To be clear I speak for my self not Uber."

Disclosure: Ashton Kutcher is a senior advisor to Vox Media, the parent company of Vox.com.