Uber's possible demise could be a wake-up call for tech companies behaving badly

Uber’s actions seem to show a clear disrespect for, well, everyone really — from their employees, to their customers, to journalists and government authorities.

Uber’s 'disruptiveness' seems to have become destructive

Uber’s actions seem to show a clear disrespect for, well, everyone. (Eric Risberg/The Associated Press)

Uber is missing from Austin.

It's a notable absence, considering the Texas capital is playing host this week to South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual festival all about film, music and technology.  

But as attendees reach for their phones to order a lift, the king of ridesharing apps is nowhere to be found. Opening the app returns the message: "Uber no longer available."

Battle with local authorities

Uber's absence from Austin is the result of just one of the company's many battles with municipalities, which, in the past, has seen Uber deliberately operate without permission and deceive local authorities. This time around, Uber opted to pull its service from the city entirely after Austin residents voted to pass a regulation requiring ridesharing services to fingerprint drivers as a security precaution. Rather than comply, the company just left.

But while Uber's Austin gap in service is noteworthy, its absence from SXSW is what's really surprising. Typically, tech companies fall over each other to vie for the attention of attendees at SXSW panels and parties, but this year, Uber is notably AWOL.

Having been in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons recently — from sexual harassment allegations to lengthy reports about government deceit — one would think the festival would have provided an opportunity for the company to save face. Instead, when Uber does come up in conversations here, their behaviour is singled out as an example of "what not to do," despite the fact that it is one of the most valuable tech start-ups in the U.S.

It can be argued that Uber never would have become the global force it is today by playing by the rules, but its recent "disruptiveness" — a buzzword that Silicon Valley seems to treasure almost above all else — has actually proven to be destructive. And now, its numerous ethical missteps could permanently damage the company.

Uber has a backlog of thousands of complaints containing the phrase "sexual assault." (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Here's a sampling: an executive at Uber has threatened to "dig up dirt" on journalists who might criticize them; the company has used software to flag and evade officials in areas where the app is banned to avoid being caught; and, according to one Buzzfeed report, Uber has a backlog of thousands of complaints containing the phrase "sexual assault."

Back in February, Susan Fowler, once an engineer at Uber, wrote a now-viral blog post about the horrific sexual harassment she allegedly faced at the company. Her post opened the floodgates to countless other stories from women calling themselves "Uber Survivors." In response, a writer for Newsweek wondered whether Uber could end up as Silicon Valley's most spectacular crash. Meanwhile, a grassroots "Delete Uber" campaign — created largely in response to the company continuing its operations during a New York taxi strike in protest of President Donald Trump's travel ban —has resulted in more than 200,000 users getting rid of the app.

Uber's actions seem to show a clear disrespect for, well, everyone really: from their employees, to their customers, to journalists and government authorities.

Replicating the model

In Austin, new ride-sharing services have cropped up to fill the gap left behind by Uber, including one taxi co-op called Ride Austin that includes many of Uber's features but gives drivers more control over operations. It also prompts passengers to round up their fares to donate to charity. This is just one example of other companies adopting the same technology and doing it better — and more ethically — than Uber.

The thing is, if Uber does crash, it won't just mark the demise of the company. It could serve as a wake-up call to an industry dominated by a culture of conceit, and the end of the myth that a company can succeed by breaking all of the rules. There's one rule that simply can't be broken: respect your employees and respect your customers.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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