Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

I just can't quit you, Uber

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 7:47 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
"I wish I knew how to quit you" is a famous quote from the movie "Brokeback Mountain," which was released in 2005, before Uber was a thing.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Sutter says Uber is causing a moral quandary for riders
  • This is the age when convenience trumps morality, he writes

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I have a confession: I love Uber.

And yes, I know the ride-sharing app has been under fire from critics for a host of reasons lately, most of them completely valid.

This week, in just the latest high-profile incident, an Uber driver in New Delhi, India, was accused of raping a passenger who used the app to call a ride. In other instances, the $40 billion "start-up" has been accused of considering smear campaigns against its journalist critics, shaming women who accuse its drivers of sexism or assault, launching a blatantly sexist ad campaign that was reported to involve 20-minute free rides with attractive women in France, and, according to a CNN report, ordering thousands of rides from its competitor, Lyft, and then canceling them, in apparent attempt to hurt Lyft's business.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

But, confession: On Sunday, I took Uber to the airport in Atlanta. When I arrived in New York, I cursed the line of yellow taxis.

Uber is faster, friendlier and cleaner.

Can Uber recover after backlash overseas?
Uber hit with bans in Spain, Thailand
Kalanick on Silicon Valley & failure

Above all: It's more convenient.

And that, I've realized, is what drives morality in the digital age: convenience. If it's convenient to look past a company's questionable ethics, to avoid clicking those bad-story links in our Facebook feeds, then we do it. Because it's easy, and because publicly shaming companies, much less boycotting them, seems self-righteous and un-American in this age of runaway capitalism and gross inequality.

That's not the way it should be, but it's happened.

This isn't just about Uber.

It's about Facebook, Google, Spotify -- I am listening to Spotify as I write this. And, yes, read about how the Swedish music-streaming service pays musicians basically nothing -- $0.007 per stream, according to a BBC report -- for their art. I used Google to find the aforementioned BBC article, and I wish that company didn't know everything about my digital life (read: life), but its services are so freaking convenient I can't quit them.

This focus on convenience -- and a lacking public discussion about the moral and economic consequences of certain technological advances or, more to the point, the companies that are making billions by pushing forward those advances -- gives the tech sector incredible power over consumers that, to me, seems unprecedented.

Meanwhile, many tech companies are providing services equivalent to those that, in another era, would have been managed or at least regulated by the government. Google is the new library, Uber the bus, Spotify the radio. They provide services we almost need to function in the modern world, but they have few competitors and come under little scrutiny from regulators and consumer watchdogs.

So maybe it's time for tech consumers (read: me, you, everyone) to take more responsibility for our choices. Since I'm clearly deficient at making these decisions for myself, I turned for advice to Sarah Lacy, founder of the website PandoDaily and a vocal Uber critic.

"Tech companies like to say they have to be responsible citizens or people will vote with their feet. But it doesn't happen," she wrote in an e-mail that was delivered to me with the help of both Google and Microsoft.

"Despite three weeks of horrific scandals not a single person responsible has ever been fired from the company. There is no reason to think that if something even worse happens, the company will change or act in any way. And no reason to expect the board and investors will force them to. That scares me. Because this is escalating behavior and Uber hasn't yet found a line it can't cross."

No line it can't cross.

These points are troubling, and they're not unlike those about clothing companies that do business in Bangladesh; or hotel chains owned by anti-gay sultanates.

But those are easier to boycott.

We're more dependent on tech.

Uber should clean up its act -- improving its process for background checks worldwide; becoming more responsive to critics (i.e., not targeting them), dropping the sexist nonsense, and helping its drivers earn more money.

The company has apologized for many of its transgressions. It issued a statement calling the alleged rape in India an "abhorrent crime." An executive, Emil Michael, said in a statement to Buzzfeed that his comments about the company potentially targeting journalists were made at a private dinner but also "were wrong no matter the circumstance." And it reportedly pulled its site about the sexist French ad.

A company blog post published December 4 indicates Uber "will be making changes in the months ahead." "Done right," the company says, "it will lead to a smarter and more humble company that sets new standards in data privacy, gives back more to the cities we serve and defines and refines our company culture effectively."

Ensuring changes are "done right" will take public pressure.

But what kind?

Lacy has deleted Uber from her phone, both because of the statement it sends and because she fears for her safety when using the service.

I'm considering the same, and did download Lyft this afternoon.

But here's a confession I know is both shameful and very 2014 America: I'd still like a protest that's more convenient.

Read CNNOpinion's Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:51 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says the AirAsia flight had similarities to Air France 447, which also encountered bad weather
updated 8:29 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Poverty isn't the only reason why so many parents are paying to have their child smuggled into the United States, says Carole Geithner
updated 11:49 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Michael Rubin says it's a farce that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei posted tweets criticizing U.S. police
updated 1:40 PM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Ron Friedman says your smartphone may be making you behave stupidly; resolve to resist distractions in 2015
updated 8:32 AM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT