There is a line between civil disobedience and criminal activity. Fortunately, it's not the kind of line you need a magnifying glass to see. It's clear and bright and easy to avoid crossing, if you care at all about doing business ethically.
Over the past several weeks, it has become clear that Uber is struggling to stay on the right side of that line. Its brash, take-no-prisoners attitude once gave the company the mantle of "disruptor," the Silicon Valley title that somehow converts to millions in venture capital funding. But these days, that disruptor looks more like a pirate -- and not a cutesy Disney one.
This month, The New York Times reported on an Uber project called Greyball. Greyball is essentially a defeat device, not unlike the software Volkswagen used to skirt regulations. Greyball used a variety of data points -- such as customer names, locations and whether they had been in certain public buildings -- in an attempt to evade sting operations by law enforcement in places where Uber's activities are restricted. Uber admitted that was at least one of the purposes of the software.
The Greyball report followed weeks of bad news for Uber: former employees complaining about rampant sexism; CEO Travis Kalanick getting into a haughty argument with an Uber driver over compensation; investors complaining that the company fosters a "toxic" work environment; a lawsuit by Google's self-driving car company, Waymo, alleging theft of technology; and several top-level executive departures.
We aren't ones to rant against the fast pace of change. On the contrary, we applaud the innovators and disruptors who are willing to challenge the way business is done.
But no matter how hard they wish to press for change, companies such as Uber must recognize that they are still obligated to follow the law and treat people -- customers, employees and regulators -- with respect.