Uber’s Questionable Practices

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By Kathryn Wolper

Uber, the app-based car service popular among college students, is a consistent target of criticism for its business practices and statements made by its executives. Consumers must reconcile Uber’s questionable business practices with its overwhelming convenience.

CEO Travis Kalanick often finds himself on the defensive when he responds to media criticisms of the app. These include an expose by Buzzfeed implying that Uber executives were looking into investing $1 million to conduct “opposition research,” which they would use to expose journalists who write unfavorable commentaries about Uber. Furthermore, the company has been caught in a myriad of other controversies, including sexism in advertising, sabotaging the fundraising efforts of competitors, engaging in surge pricing on holidays and other times of high usage and hiring brand ambassadors to ride in competitors’ cars and recruit their drivers. The appearance of unfavorable media coverage of Uber indicates a lack of public relations prowess and regulation among markets. The company’s stated animosity towards journalists does little to improve its reputation among them.

As a taxi service with an app, Uber faces challenges in both the technological and practical realms. Unlike an app whose initial bugs affect only in-app use, Uber’s bugs have material consequences in people’s lives. Users who rely on Uber provide the app, and thereby the company, with personal data. The company’s responsible use of such data is critical to the app’s trustworthiness among users. In addition to talk of opposition research on journalists who criticize Uber, the company also published a since-deleted blog post in 2012 implying that Uber’s personal records of users’ rides could expose personal details, including one night stands, according to the New York Times.

Despite the risk that comes with providing sensitive data to a company that has a less than perfect public relations record, the convenience of Uber is overwhelming. The ability to summon a car with a few taps in an app and take a ride that is less expensive than a traditional cab ride satisfies consumer need. The innovative service that Uber provides masks the company’s indelicate handling of journalists’ and users’ concerns about personal safety and information security when using Uber.

Uber executives are not doing a good enough job of assuring users that their personal data is being handled responsibly and that they are safe and respected when they step inside an Uber car. Ultimately, Uber’s ease of access makes it bulletproof against journalists and users who attack its reputation. Although Uber’s bottom line can remain unaffected despite criticism, its executives should not become complacent in the preservation of their brand’s image or the quality of their service. Users are not going to boycott Uber because of its practices and tactics. Nevertheless, Uber should work tirelessly to improve its reputation and create in itself a business devoid of objectionable or questionable practices.

Kathryn Wolper, FCRH ’18, is a communications and media studies major from Norristown, PA.