Uber “Greyball” scandal: it’s time to consider the death penalty for corporations

delete-uberUber says they’ll stop using Greyball. But this is only the latest outrage from America’s most incorrigibly corrupt business. Time to#DeleteUBER. As in, delete the company. Permanently.

You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one

The American corporation exists for one purpose: to “maximize shareholder value.” Thanks to a variety of factors, including a Supreme Court decision that codified this particularly sociopathic view, employees don’t matter, communities don’t matter, the environment doesn’t matter, and really the only commandment when it comes to bending the rules is “thou shalt not get caught.” The result is that we have glorified behavior by collective organizations that we would never tolerate in an individual.

That said, there are rules and, for the moment, at least, there are regulators. Companies do cross lines and occasionally they get busted. Maybe the offense is legal – see the recent Volkswagen debacle for a nice example – and other times a company runs afoul of public opinion (Target, Dillards, SXSW, Susan Komen, etc.). Which isn’t easy, given the degree to which we have been sensitized to all manner of appalling misbehavior.

In recent years, though, few businesses have matched ride-sharing leader Uber for sheer insolence and, if I might use the term in this context, amorality.

  • Uber was caught actively sabotaging competitors. With Gett, it was clear that the strategy was orchestrated at the highest levels of the company. This isn’t just anti-competitive behavior – and fair competition is the foundation of American business – it was the definition of anti-competitive behavior.
  • They did it to their main competitor, Lyft, too, and the tactic was verified by their drivers. Lyft estimates that Uber employees and contractors scammed them more than 5,500 times in one ten-month period by calling, posing as customers, scheduling rides, then canceling.
  • The company was sued for refusing to serve customers with service dogs.
  • The company contemplated oppo research against its critics. A senior VP reportedly suggested, in front of witnesses, that “Uber spend ‘a million dollars’ to hire ‘opposition researchers’ who would help Uber fight negative press by looking into ‘your personal lives, your families,’ BuzzFeed wrote, and exposing journalists. [Emil] Michael also specifically mentioned one reporter, PandoDaily editor Sarah Lacy, who had written a column about women being sexually assaulted by Uber drivers. There was an outcry, mostly from the media, and Michael apologized.” He was still with the company as of February 2016.
  • More recently the company has been in the news for a brutally misogynistic corporate culture. (If you haven’t heard about this story, you really need to click that link.)
  • CEO Travis Kalanick waded into a PR hornet’s nest earlier this year when he joined President Trump’s business advisory council, saying “we’ll partner with anyone in the world as long they’re about making transportation in cities better.” While there’s nothing illegal about this – Tesla’s Elon Musk, who isn’t uniformly regarded as a world-class douchebag, is on the council – Kalanick did find himself being compared with fascist dictators like Mussolini, who is credited with “making the trains run on time.” Kalanick eventually “clarified” his comments and withdrew from the council as the heat mounted.
  • Then there’s the #DeleteUBER movement, sparked by the company’s alleged plan to capitalize on the NYC protest against Trump’s “executive order banning refugees and immigrants from certain countries from entering United States.”
  • By the way, the debate has raged for some time about Uber’s “surge pricing,” which is seen by many as opportunistic and unethical. Some defend the practice and note that it’s always transparent, but it has long been a given in American business that you don’t put the screws to customers who are in a bind.
  • Noticing I’m not even talking about cases where Uber’s obviously under-vetted drivers were accused of groping, assaulting, raping, robbing, kidnapping and killing people.

It’s so bad that the normally reserved Guardian was moved to ask: “Is Uber the worst company in Silicon Valley?”

Now there’s one more outrage, and this has the potential to be the worst of all.

Uber has for years engaged in a worldwide program to deceive the authorities in markets where its low-cost ride-hailing service was resisted by law enforcement or, in some instances, had been banned.

The program, involving a tool called Greyball, uses data collected from the Uber app and other techniques to identify and circumvent officials who were trying to clamp down on the ride-hailing service. Uber used these methods to evade the authorities in cities like Boston, Paris and Las Vegas, and in countries like Australia, China and South Korea.

Greyball was part of a program called VTOS, short for “violation of terms of service,” which Uber created to root out people it thought were using or targeting its service improperly. The program, including Greyball, began as early as 2014 and remains in use, predominantly outside the United States. Greyball was approved by Uber’s legal team.

Greyball and the VTOS program were described to The New York Times by four current and former Uber employees, who also provided documents. The four spoke on the condition of anonymity because the tools and their use are confidential and because of fear of retaliation by Uber.

In other words, they developed technology to help them evade authorities seeking to crack down on their illegal behavior.

It will be interesting to see how the Greyball story plays out.

As I have noted in the past, I’m not anti-business. I’m anti-sociopath. And we know from experience that it does not have to be this way. But for the Kalanick Crime Family, dirty tricks are who they are. It’s in their cultural DNA. Corrupt, anti-competitive, anti-social, hyenas in rut – that’s their brand.

Under normal circumstances misbehaving businesses are subject to a variety of checks. They can be fined. They can be sued. Misdeeds can spawn PR crises which competitors can leverage to take away market share. Customer boycotts can send clear messages about what will not be tolerated.

But what happens in a world where it is clear that none of these things are going to persuade the company to play fair and their rape/loot/pillage “business model” is reinforced by investors for whom money trumps ethics?

In NCAA sports there’s a mechanism for dealing with incorrigible offenders: the “death penalty,” which allows the governing body to shut a program down for a period of years when said program proves it has no intention of adhering to the rules.

I think America needs a death penalty for corporations and I think Uber is a great candidate to be the first business up the steps to the gallows. Shut them down, sell off their assets, and imprison senior leaders who are found guilty of behaving illegally. (Yes, this would require us to revisit the actual legal code surrounding fair business practice.)

Uber isn’t the only bad actor out there by far, and it might be inspirational for some of the others if a highly successful company were made an example of.

Of course, there is zero risk of this idea happening in our current climate. I may be a dreamer, but I’m not stupid. If the authorities find that Greyball, for instance, violated the law, we’d see a few fines here and there, but they’d be small enough that Uber could pay them out of the petty cash box. No meaningful consequences, no incentive straighten up and fly right, just a mild slap on the wrist and they’d be picking pockets again before they got out of the courthouse.

We don’t live in that country. But it would be nice if we did. Maybe something to think about as we look toward 2018, 2020 and beyond…

2 replies »

  1. Really well written, Sam. The company I was once so passionate about has made switch to Lyft, full stop.