Car service app Uber and the storm it has driven into

Emil Michael, senior vice-president for business, Uber
Emil Michael, senior vice-president for business, Uber
Ben Smith, editor-in-chief, Buzzfeed
Ben Smith, editor-in-chief, Buzzfeed

The latest news on Uber here is that riders in Singapore will be able to listen to their preferred music through the company's tie-up with digital music service company Spotify.

But elsewhere, news on Uber has been nothing like music to the the ears. Chief executive of the international car service Travis Kalanick practically gave a speech through a series of 14 tweets on Nov 18. He was responding to a wave of criticism this week from remarks that one of his top lieutenants, Emil Michael, made about snooping on journalists. Here's a timeline of the controversy in every sordid detail, and more.

The main characters:

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief, Buzzfeed

Travis Kalanick, chief executive, Uber

Emil Michael, senior vice-president for business, Uber

Sarah Lacy, editor, Silicon Valley website PandoDaily

Friday night, Nov 14, Manhattan, New York: Mr Ben Smith, editor-in-chief at social news and entertainment website Buzzfeed is at a dinner hosted by Mr Ian Osborne, a former adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron and consultant to Uber.

Monday, Nov 17: Mr Smith writes an article titled "Uber Executive Suggests Digging Up Dirt On Journalists". In it, he reproduces comments made over dinner by Mr Emil Michael, Uber's senior vice-president for business. Mr Michael reportedly outlined a plan to spend US$1 million to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists to "fight back against the press". "They'd look into your personal lives, your families," and give the media a taste of its own medicine," he reportedly said. He was apparently not happy with media critics of the company.

Mr Michael, it seems was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, who wrote about Uber in a bad light, and said that she deleted the app. Mr Smith said that during that dinner, Mr Michael apparently said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. Mr Michael thought Ms Lacy should be held "personally responsible" for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted. He singled out Ms Lacy as a subject of such dirt-digging. Mr Michael at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. In the same article, Mr Smith reveals that the general manager of Uber New York City Josh Mohrer accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, without her permission.

Shortly after the article was published, in a statement through Uber spokesman Nairi Hourdajian, Mr Michael said: "The remarks attributed to me at a private dinner - borne out of frustration during an informal debate over what I feel is sensationalistic media coverage of the company I am proud to work for - do not reflect my actual views and have no relation to the company's views or approach. They were wrong no matter the circumstance and I regret them."

Ms Hourdajian also said on what Mr Michael apparently suggested on digging dirt: "Any such activity would be clear violations of our privacy and data access policies. Access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes. These policies apply to all employees. We regularly monitor and audit that access."

Tuesday, Nov 18: Mr Kalanick issues a public apology in a series of tweets:

Tuesday, Nov 18: Buzzfeed reveals details on incident where reporter was tracked. It said that Ms Bhuiyan, the reporter, arrived at Uber's New York headquarters in Long Island City for an interview with Mr Mohrer. "There you are," he said, holding his iPhone and gesturing at it. "I was tracking you." He also showed her logs from her previous Uber journeys.

Tuesday, Nov 18: Uber says that it is investigating its top New York executive for tracking a BuzzFeed News reporter without her permission in violation of what the transit giant says has long been its privacy policy.

Tuesday, Nov 18: Uber publishes its privacy policy for the first time, though it said the policy had always been in effect. It says it has strict policies against looking at the personal travel data of people, including journalists, who use the service.

Wednesday, Nov 19: US politician Al Franken goes after the company in a letter pressing Mr Kalanick to explain its privacy policies.


This is just the storm the company which has outposts in 200 cities sped in November. It comes barely a month after another died down.

Oct 22: The Uber office in France got flak for likening its female drivers to hookers. The French office came up with a promotion was to deal Uber riders with "hot chick" drivers as they make their way across the city. It was Uber's tie-up with a brand called Avions de chasse, which showcases pictures of skimpily-dressed models on its website. This was the trigger factor for Ms Lacy from PandoDaily to delete her Uber account.

Oct 3: Another invasion of privacy from 2011 surfaced. At the the launch party of Uber Chicago, attendees were given information on the real-time movements of 30 Uber users in New York. One of the attendees, tech socialite Julia Allison, recognized entrepreneur Peter Sims, from the list and contacted him, asking whether he was in an Uber car at a specific location. Mr Sims blogged about it, and eventually quit Uber.

Aug 12: Uber's competitor in the United States, Lyft, said that 177 Uber employees ordered and canceled more than 5,000 rides from October 2013. Uber also received a wave of criticism over the tactic. This came after Uber had already made itself a reputation for using aggressive and questionable business tactics.

jalmsab@sph.com.sg