Rule-breaking and Press Horror

Maybe I’m just a cynical bastard when it comes to rapacious late capitalist corporations, but I’m not particularly shocked by the news that an Uber executive suggested (at a dinner party) paying a team of people to dig up dirt on critical journalists to smear them with, specifically singling out PandoDaily founder and editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy.

If you read one piece on the whole thing, I suggest Lacy’s personal reflections. Not only does she discuss her own feelings, but she also pushes back on our problematic tech messiahs who more and more appear to be little different in motive and in ideology from the robber barons of the last Gilded Age.

Sadly, I wish I was ending there, but this post wasn’t inspired by Lacy’s words, but rather Matt Yglesias’ on Vox, who wrote this horrid piece, “Uber has an asshole problem” detailing the problems with Uber. Here’s Yglesias’ key paragraph:

When Uber got off the ground as a company, its business had an unusual problem. In many markets where it was operating, it was violating the letter of the law. And in essentially all markets where it was operating, it was violating the spirit of the law. That’s because the “spirit” of the prevailing taxi regulations was, almost everywhere, wrong and pernicious. Alongside regulations aimed at promoting public safety, almost every city and state is burdened with rules designed to protect the incomes of incumbent taxi license holders.

Yglesias, and quite a lot of Uber defenders (and more widely, defenders of the exploitative “sharing economy”) freely admit that the services being offered are illegal. They don’t just admit this, they praise it (as Yglesias goes on to do). But you can’t go around decrying the willingness of Uber to attack journalists and yet fail to recognize that the philosophy of rule-breaking they have towards the actual law extends to unethical practices towards the press.

It gets at the heart of why there’s a declining trust in the news media at large — here you have a company who’s business model is to break laws. And this goes for other ride-sharing organizations, and companies like Airbnb; but taxi regulations exist not only to protect the taxi cartel, but also to protect consumers and workers. And by and large, these companies are celebrated as “disruptors” and “innovators” who have figured out a way to capture an under-served market.

We don’t give such paeans to other criminals. Sellers of black market guns or medications that aren’t FDA-approved aren’t called “disruptors” who are shaking up complacent industries.

Issues of government protecting incumbent business through laws and regulations are better served by pieces like this WPRI one. This you can organize a real movement around. But when big business can just ignore law because it wants to, even while exploiting its own laborers by taking advantage of the nebulous and troublesome definition of an “independent contractor”, you have to wonder whether law is there to ensure the little guy and the big guy are treated the same, or whether the law exists to prevent the little guy from being treated as fairly as the big guy.

Ultimately, even Lacy shares a similar sense of not thinking that Uber would ever apply its practices to the press (emphasis added):

And lest you think this was just a rogue actor and not part of the company’s game plan, let me remind you Kalanick telegraphed exactly this sort of thing when he sat on stage at the Code Conference last spring and said he was hiring political operatives whose job would be to “throw mud.” I naively thought he just meant Taxi companies. Let me also remind you: This is a company you trust with your personal safety every single time you use it. Let me also remind you: The executive in question has not been fired.

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