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What To Do About Uber?

On Monday, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith published a report from a dinner he and several other media figures attended with Uber executives. During the dinner, Smith wrote, senior vice president Emil Michael proposed spending $1 million to dig up dirt on journalists critical of the company, like PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy. Since its launch, Uber’s growth—and sense of its own importance—has been meteoric, and the company seems determined not to let anyone stand in its way. The brazenness of the plan was highlighted by the fact that Michael felt comfortable relaying these plans at a dinner, albeit one he later said he thought was off the record.

The reaction from the commentariat was swift, and rightfully incensed. Some promised to swear off the service. Ellen Cushing, a journalist who has covered Uber for San Francisco magazine, said that she had been warned that company officials might look into records of her movements. Xeni Jardin, co-founder of Boing Boing, wrote on Twitter, “The worst thing about this Uber privacy, bullying, sexism, surveillance debacle is I fucking love Uber but feel compelled to stop using it.”

Jardin’s remarks echoed with a lot of urban-dwelling media types, for whom Uber is a treasured convenience (and, when conditions allow it, easily reimbursed). They also concisely presented some of the many problems with Uber: a pattern of cavalier use of customer information, along with a disregard for the welfare of female riders, some of whom have been assaulted by drivers. What the emerging Uber-storm reveals is the strange, sometimes dissonant, responses to malfeasance by Silicon Valley. And it also raises the question of what individual consumers can do against companies whose enormous valuations and chutzpah are matched by their lack of a moral compass.

Like Amazon, Uber is notorious for its unfair labor conditions. Its drivers—independent contractors, all—experience fluctuating wages, unanticipated operating costs, no job security, and steep competition from incumbents and other startups alike. The company has also been caught more than once revealing customer data without permission, whether in interactions with other journalists or at parties in which the company has broadcast the routes taken by famous (or at least Internet-famous) users of the service. But this time, as with Amazon’s on-and-off disputes with various publishers over e-book pricing, something is different. The change, so far as I can tell, is not the degree of the offense, but that it directly threatens journalists—the same class of people who have been some of Uber’s most loyal customers and chroniclers.

Tech companies present a distinct moral quandary because the types of exploitation in which they traffic are generally suppressed, or exist far down the production line. If the minerals coltan and wolframite (which contains tungsten ore) were mined in Maryland, and if iPhones were built in Colorado, we’d probably have a much different perception of Apple. As it is, Apple CEO Tim Cook—the man hailed as a logistics master for his development of Apple’s vast supply chain—is so far removed from these conditions (at least in the public imagination) that when he recently came out as gay, he was able to claim that he was working in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King and receive no pushback.

Yet around the time of Cook’s announcement, two media artifacts emerged showing how much ruthlessness and willful myopia goes into this high-level of image-management. On the one hand, many news sites published photos of Cook laughing with Foxconn employees at a visit to the company’s factories, while others reproduced a group of harrowing poems from a young Foxconn worker who had committed suicide.

There is no perfect response to these kinds of companies. We are all entangled in the marketplace, and sometimes we buy products from companies we don’t like, whether because we feel we have to or because it’s simply easy and cheap. Most of us are hypocrites. I own Apple gadgets, and I sometimes shop on Amazon. A couple years ago, I interviewed for a job at Amazon Publishing. I’ve ridden in an Uber car a couple times but don’t have an account; I’ve also patronized competitors of all of these.

I try to be an ethical consumer, but I also find myself thinking that that very concept is a farce and leads to a kind of preening self-righteousness—the moral equivalent of bragging that you don’t own a TV when someone asks what you think of Homeland. And it can be tiring to submit each company with which we interact through some personalized better business bureau. We run the risk of attaining false consciousness and, through our supposedly conscious consumption, buttressing the kinds of bad actors we claim to oppose.

The virtue of the regulatory state is that it takes these ethical impulses of ours and cements them as policy. No wonder that cyber-libertarians, like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, hate regulation; it does the exact opposite of what they claim that their technologies do. Regulation takes responsibility out of individual hands and entrusts it to a larger, more powerful body. There’s good reason for this; civil rights, privacy among them, are a collective matter. The law is supposed to act as a guarantor for us all, especially those who don’t have the resources to fight for their own protections. An infringement on Sarah Lacy’s privacy, or on a nameless Uber driver’s labor rights, is potentially an infringement on mine and yours as well.

For many reasons—whether regulatory capture, congressional lobbying and influence peddling, or the public perception of technological progress as being somehow inevitable or linked to social progress—tech companies have often been able to evade meaningful regulation. Disruption is the spirit of the age. The power dynamics are so lopsided that Amazon—as clear a monopoly as exists—can successfully force the Department of Justice to investigate book publishers for colluding over e-book pricing.

It’s in this context that Buzzfeed’s expose can seem so welcome and so spectacularly explosive. Public shaming appears to be the only weapon we have left against big corporations. (No one wants to be trending for the wrong reasons.) Many tech giants engage in some form of labor exploitation, but that notion has become a commonplace. The product peddled by many of today’s most innovative companies is convenience, and it comes at the expense of low-level workers—who, despite being essential to the whole production, are treated as a market inefficiency. We care more when we recognize the victim—when the victim is us.