Tag Archives: ethics

Why it matters if Uber execs access user data: U.S. Congress loves Uber

heatmap Uber DC

heatmap Uber DC

Last night, Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith published an explosive story, reporting on a dinner in New York City where Uber executive Emil Michael floated the idea of hiring opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists who had been critical of the startup. Michael, who has since repeatedly apologized, asserted that neither “me nor my company would ever engage in such activities.” Uber spokesperson Nairi Hourdajian tweeted that “We have not, do not and will not investigate journalists. Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.”

If so, Uber would differ from H-P, Wal-Mart, Deutche Telekom, Fox News and other tech companies that have investigated and monitored journalists reporting on them. Regardless of the truth of whether this famously aggressive company has or will gather such “dirt files,” one item in Smith’s report deserves special notice, as Jay Yarrow picked up this morning: Smith reported that Uber demonstrated how it could spy on journalists:

In fact, the general manager of Uber NYC accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so.

Uber told Smith that “Any such activity would be clear violations of our privacy and data access policies. Access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes. These policies apply to all employees. We regularly monitor and audit that access.”

According to Ellen Cushing, a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine, that policy doesn’t look watertight.

Cushing explained more in a followup post about the warning she received::

It’s worth noting here that as far as I know, the company hasn’t looked into my logs. After talking to Uber staffers, it’s quite clear that the company stokes paranoia in its employees about talking to the press, so there’s a solid possibility that my sources’ fears were just the result of overzealous (and unfounded) precaution. But when I contacted a former employee last night about the news, this person told me that “it’s not very hard to access the travel log information they’re talking about. I have no idea who is ‘auditing’ this log or access information. At least when I was there, any employee could access rider rating information, as I was able to do it. How much deeper you could go with regular access, I’m not sure, as I didn’t try.” A second former employee told me something similar, saying “I never heard anything about execs digging into reporters’ travel logs, though it would be easy for them to do so.”

If you’re not thinking through the potential issues of Uber knowing who its riders are, when, and where, and what they are likely to have been doing, it’s worth stepping back a bit. Such associations can be powerful, as Uber has itself noted itself, from a “Ride of Glory“, defined as “anyone who took a ride between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night, and then took a second ride from within 1/10th of a mile of the previous nights’ drop-off point 4-6 hours later (enough for a quick night’s sleep” to associations with alcohol and prostitution.

Uber blog: "How Prostitution and Alcohol Make Uber Better." "Areas of San Francisco with the most prostitution, alcohol, theft, and burglary also have the most Uber rides. "

Uber blog: “How Prostitution and Alcohol Make Uber Better.” – “Areas of San Francisco with the most prostitution, alcohol, theft, and burglary also have the most Uber rides. ”

With great data comes great power, and therefore responsibility. That means culture and ethics matter. The reason Michael was angry at Sarah Lacy is appears to be because of her excoriating post about Uber’s culture.

Now, imagine if powerful members of Congress decide that they don’t like Uber’s labor practices, or surge pricing, or its approach to flaunting regulatory strictures, or the way it lobbies city governments not to be subject to reporting on compliance with accessibility laws. What then? Will the same executives who have showed a limited “God View” at launch parties choose not to use more powerful internal analytics to track who is going where and when?

I know this is all hypothetical, but multiple reports of executives accessing user profiles mean we need keep our eyes open and ears clear, particularly given the relationships we can see forming between powerful politicians and tech companies, and the stories we already know meta data can tell about our lives.

The co-founder and CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, is a driven entrepreneur relentlessly focused on building a great product that seamlessly connects demand to capacity in a brilliant mobile app, leaving payment and logistics in the background. When I sat across from him at the launch party for Uber in DC, I found him to be funny and quick-witted, with a natural salesman’s charisma. Today, I think Uber users, including me, need to hear from him next, however, isn’t about future profit projections, plans for future expansion or more partnerships: it’s that we can trust him and his company with our locations and our safety. We want to know that they won’t ever use the data generated by our movements or pickups against us or the people who represent us. We want to know that they aren’t “morally bankrupt.” The stakes are too high to blindly trust without verifying.

UPDATE: Kalanick tweeted out the following statement after I published this post: “Emil’s comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company. His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals. His duties here at Uber do not involve communications strategy or plans and are not representative in any way of the company approach. Instead, we should lead by inspiring our riders, our drivers and the public at large. We should tell the stories of progress and appeal to people’s hearts and minds. We must be open and vulnerable enough to show people the positive principles that are the core of Uber’s culture. We must tell the stories of progress Uber has brought to cities and show the our constituents that we are principled and mean well. The burden is on us to show that, and until Emil’s comments we felt we were making positive steps along those lines. But I will personally commit to our riders, partners and the public that we are up to the challenge. We are up to the challenge to show that Uber is and will continue to be a positive member of the community. And furthermore, I will do everything in my power towards the goal of earning that trust. I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them – myself included – and that also goes for Emil. And last, I want to apologize to @sarahcuda.”

I’ll update this if he replies to my question. An edited version of this post was published on Wired.com.

UPDATE: On Tuesday night, un response to further concerns and criticism about its data use, Uber updated its privacy policy in a post to the company blog. I’m posting the statement in full below:

We wanted to take a moment to make very clear our policy on data privacy, which is fundamental to our commitment to both riders and drivers. Uber has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data. The only exception to this policy is for a limited set of legitimate business purposes. Our policy has been communicated to all employees and contractors.

Examples of legitimate business purposes for select members of the team include:

Supporting riders and drivers in order to solve problems brought to their attention by the Uber community.

Facilitating payment transactions for drivers.

Monitoring driver and rider accounts for fraudulent activity, including terminating fake accounts and following up on stolen credit card reports.

Reviewing specific rider or driver accounts in order to troubleshoot bugs.

The policy is also clear that access to rider and driver accounts is being closely monitored and audited by data security specialists on an ongoing basis, and any violations of the policy will result in disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination and legal action.

Uber’s business depends on the trust of the riders and drivers that use our technology and platform. The trip history of our riders is confidential information, and Uber protects this data from internal and external unauthorized access. As the company continues to grow, we will continue to be transparent about our policy and ensure that it is properly understood by our employees.

[Graphic Credit: TechCrunch, Uber]


Filed under article, security, technology

Can journalists change their social media avatars to political symbols?

Nisha Chittal asked a number of journalists (including me) about where they stand for on using same-sex marriage symbols on their social media profiles.

Here’s what she found: “The answer is a multi-layered one: it depends on the journalist, the outlet they work for, the social media platform, and whether the journalist is covering this week’s Supreme Court hearings.”


I was honored to see that Nisha gave me the “kicker quote” at the end. If you’d like to weigh in on your stance on this ethical issue, comment away.

Here’s the statement I submitted to her inquiry:

In general, the consensus answer amongst the journalists I respect is that changing your avatar to a symbol like this is not OK, based upon the ethics policies of places like the AP, WSJ, NYT, PBS or NPR.

I think the capacity to demonstrate support for one side of a contentious social issue like this varies, depending upon the masthead a journalist is working under, the ethics policy of that masthead, the role of the journalist and the coverage area of the journalist. Staking out positions on a reporter’s beat is generally frowned upon.

Opinion journalists who regularly take positions on the issues of the day as columnists have often already made it clear where they stand on a policy or law. Advocacy journalism has an established place in the marketplace for ideas. Readers know where a writer stands and are left to judge the strength of an argument and the evidence presented to back it.

If a reporter takes on overt, implicit position on an issue that she is reporting on, however, will it be possible to interview sources who oppose it?

On the other hand, there are a number of social issues that may have had “sides” in past public discourse but have now become viewpoints that few journalists would find tenable to support today.

How many journalists were able to remain neutral or objective in their coverage of slavery in the 1860s? Womens’ suffrage in the early 20th century? Civil rights in the 1960s? Child slavery, sex trafficking, so-called “honor rape” or the impression of child soldiers in the present?

Interracial marriage was illegal in some states in the Union, not so many years ago. That is not the case any longer. It seems to me that gay marriage is on the same trajectory. The arc of the moral universe is long indeed, but I tend to agree with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on its trajectory: it bends towards justice.


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Classrooms and community: my moderation standards for Google+, Facebook and blog comments

Over the past few months, I’ve seen a lot of spam and pornography links on Google Plus, on Facebook and on the blogs I maintain. Fortunately, blogs, Google and Facebook both give us the ability to moderate comments and, if we wish, to block other people who do not respect the opinions or character of others.

Last night, I’m seeing a lack of clarity about my approach to online community, so here’s how I think about it, with a nod to the example set by Arizona State University journalism professor Dan Gillmor.

I can and do block spammers and people posting links to pornography.

I will leave comments on on my blogs, precisely because I value conversations, despite the issues that persist online. I have been moderating discussion in online forums and blogs for many years, including those of my publishers. My full thoughts on the value of blog comments — and the social norms that I expect people comments to live within — are on this blog. To date, there are 196 comments on the post.

Vilely insulting me won’t help your case. Insulting others will ruin it. I was a teacher in my twenties. I would not tolerate disrespectful behavior in my classroom, either to me or to other students. If you can’t be civil and continue to insult others, much less the person hosting the forum, you were asked to leave and see the principal.

If the behavior persists, you will lose the privilege of participating in “class.” Eventually, you get expelled. On Google+ or blogs, that takes the form of being defriended, banned or blocked from my public updates. I prefer not to block users but I will do it. I respect your right to speak freely on your own blog, Twitter, Facebook or Google+ account, whether that involves cursing or ignorance.

I strongly believe in the First Amendment. Governments should not censor citizens. That said, I do not, however, feel obligated to host such speech on my own blog, particularly if it is directed towards other commenters. I believe that building and maintaining healthy communities, online of offline, requires that the people hosting them enforce standards for participation that encourage civil dialogue.

I hope that makes sense to friends, readers and colleagues. If not, you are welcome to let me know in the comments.


Filed under blogging, education, social media, technology

Is it ethical for journalists to “friend” sources on Facebook or LinkedIn?

In this video, Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs & professor at the Columbia Journalism School, answers my question about whether it’s ethical for journalists to friend sources on social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn. Sreenivasan was speaking at a workshop on social media tools and tips hosted by the Online News Association in Arlington, Virginia.

Sreenivasan has posted many useful social media resources.


Filed under journalism, social media, technology, Twitter, video

Framing problems with ow.ly: Why I won’t click, RT or use your links

I’ve had it. I see ow.ly links all over Twitter and I’m not going to take it anymore.

What’s the issue? Framing and search engine optimization (SEO).

I just read through a comment thread on “The Day I Decided to be Evil [URL Shorteners]” at SiliconAngle.com on whether we should use URL shorteners at all.

I’m on the “yes” side of this argument, both because I would be horrifically hypocritical (I’ve shared thousands of shortened links on Twitter) and because microblogging virtually requires the use of shorteners to work as a means to share and spread data, links, pictures and other forms of media.

So there’s that, in the interests of disclosure.

My post comes late to the SEO debate and, to be frank, there are others who are much better equipped to argue the point. Fortunately, since this is the Web, I can point you in the right direction:

The authority on the subject is absolutely Danny Sullivan, who posted Which URL shortening service should you use? last month. What’s the nut of the SEO issue? The kind of redirect used. As Sullivan writes:

”A top issue to me, and many others, is that a URL shortening service does a “301 redirect” to the full URL. That number stands for the code a web server issues to a browser (or search engine) when a URL is requested.

A 301 redirect says that the URL requested (the short URL) has “permanently” moved to the long address. Since it’s a permanent redirect, search engines finding links to the short URLs will credit all those links to the long URL (see the SEO: Redirects & Moving Sites section of the Search Engine Land members library for more about redirection).

In contrast, a 302 redirect is a “temporary” one. If that’s issued, search engines assume that the short URL is the “real” URL and just temporarily being pointed elsewhere. That means link credit does not get passed on to the long URL.

In short, if you’re hoping that links you tweet will generate link credit for your web site, you want a service that issues a 301 redirect. Also keep in mind that while 301s might be issued today, a shortening service could shift to 302 directs at any time (and if they do, I hope scorn gets poured upon them).

Ok, so there’s the SEO background and issues at hand. So which does ow.ly use? I tried Rex Swain’s “Rex Swain’s HTTP Viewer” tool, linked to from Danny’s post, on the following link: http://ow.ly/cB3E

Here’s what I received:


Sure looks like a 200, not a 301 redirect, right? That would imply that A.J. Ghergich of AuthorityDomains was wrong when he wrote that ow.ly uses 301 redirects. When I tried the HTTP Status Codes Checker tool provided by SEOConsultants.com, however, I received two different server responses:

#1 Server Response: http://ow.ly/cB3E
HTTP Status Code: HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently


#2 Server Response: http://www.engadget.com/2009/06/06/40-second-toothbrush-complicates-horrifies/
HTTP Status Code: HTTP/1.1 200 OK

So that looks like both! Ah, confusion. Hootsuite certainly thinks that it’s doing it right, as evidenced by the following statement on their blog:

”Ow.ly links won’t harm SEO because they’re designed to allow Google and other search engine spiders access to the content without stealing any Google juice.”

Color me unconvinced. I think I’ll stick with bit.ly, which I know uses the correct redirect every time.

UPDATE: I asked Danny Sullivan in October (on Twitter, no less) what he thought of ow.ly. Sullivan tweeted that “any shortener that frames is bad for SEO as you don’t get credit [link to his URL shortener post] standalones doing this feel more evil to me.” Further, he replied that “su.pr, diggbar & facebook all frame. not so bad as designed to do from within their systems. not that i like it much still.”

As Jennifer Van Grove (@jbruin) points out on Mashable in “HootSuite 2.0: Get More Twitter Tabs, Columns and Stats,” the HootSuite platform itself has continued to improve and offer easier management of everything from “profile feed options (like mentions, DMs, pending tweets), multiple keyword tracking (up to 3 keywords per column), search terms, and groups.” That’s a compelling offering. As she writes, “ow.ly links via HootSuite to track click-throughs will also love that stats are more detailed. So, summary stats on links are supplemented with individual tweet statistics showing total clicks and user rating.”

That’s long been one of the more attractive features of ow.ly for publishers, given the need for them to prove ROI, measure audience feedback and test different compositions of microcontent. That said, bit.ly offers similar features without the burden of that bar.

In other words, I think Web publishers who use Hootsuite are getting good value, especially considering that the cost is precisely zero.

I do, however, think they risk damaging their brand equity and irking users with the social bar – and that there’s a larger ethical issue around the framing that the ow.ly bar creates, including potential violations to terms of service and copyright. If you read Malcolm Coles, “Ow.ly and Hootsuite are in widespread breach of newspaper and other sites’ TOCs,” you’ll gather that he does as well.

Hootsuite itself writes the following:

“Generate money from your tweets! Add your Google Adsense code to enable ads on your ow.ly links. We’ll show your ads half the time, and our ads half the time.”

Also of note: when I clicked the “Learn more” link below the Adsense copy, I ended up at a 404 page with the following URL: http://blog.hootsuite.com/monetized-twitter-yes-we-did

Of course, thanks to Google, you can still view the page in cache:

Following is a quote from the post, entitled in a decidedly Yoda-esque fashion: “Monetized Twitter: Yes We Did.”

“Got a link that prompts a re-tweet? As your ow.ly link gets passed from person to person, so does the featured ad! If your link is retweeted by enough people, it can continue to make you money.

Ever wonder how Twitter’s getting monetized? We’ve just shown you. It’s easy to configure, it’s easy to share, and it easily integrates with Twitter.

Note: So that we can keep HootSuite as a free service for our users, there is a 50% chance that your ad will appear in a link, and a 50% chance that one of our ads will appear.

Got that? As the link to the third party’s content is passed along – content that the user (who shortened it) and Hootsuite (the shortener) did not create – both of those parties will earn money by framing it with ads.

It’s worth observing that Hootsuite does provides an option NOT to include Adsense in Settings, simply by leaving the field unoccupied: “(leave empty to disable AdSense)”

Also crucial to note is that the updated, slimmer version of Hootsuite’s social bar does not appear to play well with Google Adsense, though the precise reason for the issue isn’t clear.

According to Hootsuite, “We are currently experiencing issues with AdSense integration. Your ads may not be displayed. We are in communication with Google about this issue, and we will keep our users updated.”

I should note that I’m not a lawyer, but a quick read of Google’s Adsense policies would seem to put ow.ly in violation:

Copyrighted Material: AdSense publishers may not display Google ads on webpages with content protected by copyright law unless they have the necessary legal rights to display that content. Please see our DMCA policy for more information.”

Framing another site’s content with a bar that contains advertising to other parties would appear to do precisely that.

It could be a formatting issue, it could be something else entirely – I wonder whether Google’s notoriously savvy legal team has seen this issue.

If any publishers do decide to use ow.ly, I believe they would be well-advised to do so.

At least one lawyer shares that view. In the comments section of Greg Lambert’s post on GeekLawBlog, Product Review: HootSuite & OW.LY – Do The Benefits Outweigh The Problems?, Doug Cornelius posted a strong opinion, albeit one filtered by his standard lawyerly disclaimer:

Incarnation of Satan may be a bit much, but definitely a spawn of Satan.

I am not a copyright expert, but it seems to me that framing is a copyright violation. (There was the TotalNews case, but it was settled before we could could get some law on this. Infer what you want from TotalNew stopping the framing as part of the undisclosed settlement.) I expect that this feature of Ow.ly won’t last long, once the lawyers start sniffing around.

Even if it is not illegal, it robs websites of traffic. You, like me, put up blog posts because we feel like saying something. We don’t sell ads, we don’t have sponsors and nobody pays us to write. All I (and I assume you) want in return is some page hits and the occasional comment. We want to know that someone is listening and that we are not just talking to ourselves.

Ow.ly seems to rob us the page hits so I would not know that you viewed my page or where you came from. I don’t ask for much, but it is nice to know that you stopped by and who sent you. Ow.ly takes that away.

Don’t get me started on the adsense feature of ow.ly. If I wanted ads associated with my site, I would put them there. I don’t want someone framing my content with a Viagra ad.

Lambert himself expresses considerable reservation:

The Whole “OW.LY” Thing….

Alright, this is the big one. I barely got my first test Tweet out on HootSuite when someone called me out for “annoying” if not “illegal” framing of web content. Now, I confess that I didn’t realize what OW.LY was doing until after I had sent out the Tweet, so I was pretty ignorant of the drawbacks of using OW.LY as my URL shrinker. At first glance, the frame is a little annoying, but also a little useful. So, I had a nice little discussion with Doug Cornelius about the benefits. Whereas I thought HootSuite’s ability to gather statistics and feedback could be a benefit to the person Tweeting the link — Doug thought it was something close to the incarnation of Satan himself (okay, I’m being a little over dramatic on Doug’s response… but, not that far off!)

After looking at the positives and the negatives, I decided that framing of other people’s content really isn’t a great idea. It is annoying for one, and it borders on the unethical for another. I would ask the folks at HootSuite to give the users of their product an option to use a non-framing version of OW.LY that would still gather the metrics of who did the click-thru, without annoying the hell out of them!!

As for the putting Google Adsense code on OW.LY to generate revenue from your Tweets, I’d have to say that would not be something that I would do, or recommend. Some may argue that people would not have gone to these websites if it were not for your Tweets, but I’d have to say that there seems to be a certain sliminess about that type of revenue generating that I do not like.

There are other reasons to be concerned, as content publisher. As Espen Antonsen writes on cloudave.com in “The Problem with URL Shorteners: Ow.ly server errors,” your audience may be confronted with a server error by the shortener, even if the end resource is live. I should note that has nothing to do with SEO or framing issues, but it’s worth considering:

“If you currently click on a ow.ly shortened URL you will be shown a server error page at ow.ly – not the URL you or the publisher intended you to see. Proponents of these services have so far ignored the main problem; trusting a third party. I guess they see the problem now when potential visitors to their site are stopped by a server error on someone else’s site.

The question of trust in this regard is especially important because these services has no working business model. Also any developer can create such a service in less than an hour making the barriers of entry for this service extremely low. Expect to see URL shortener services changing their tactics: Digg launched their already much hated DiggBar last week. This service unlike most other url shortener services wraps the actual landing page in a frame and adds a top-frame bar with Digg information. Ow.ly is also now doing this (unsure if this feature is new to this service). The problem for site owners is that they have no control over how these services will change. DiggBar is already “stealing” link-juice by having a digg-shortened link on Delicious instead of the original url. Also DiggBar and Ow.ly responds with a frameset (200 http status code) instead of a redirect (301 http status code). This can result in a lower pagerank as Google will not see the link from “Site X” to “Site Y” but instead from Digg.com to “Site Y”. In my view URL shorteners are just plain evil. They add an extra unnecessary layer on the web.”

Angie Haggstrom, of ProfessionalWebContent.com, expressed similar reservations to Cornelius in the comments of that post:

“After one of my readers complained about me using HootSuite’s ow.ly links (he thought the framing raised some copyright issues), I asked HootSuite about giving me the option to remove it.

They responded that the ability to move the frame will be an option in their “premium” account, meaning that you will have to pay for it.

By the way, the HootSuite tool bar has been in place as long as I have been using it, which is for 3 months.”

“The other beef with services such as Ow.ly that many haven’t mentioned is the fact that they are making money off content that doesn’t belong to them. Google Adsense for example. Shouldn’t web owners get a cut? At least those who do not want to share their content?”

So where does this leave me?

The Hootsuite blog states that it offers an opt-out, that doesn’t fix the ad framing issue:

“One click opt-out. We recognize everyone is different. So, if you or your users happen not to like it? Not a problem. One click and anyone can opt-out of ever seeing an Ow.ly social bar again.”

That doesn’t do it for me: I won’t be using ow.ly.

As I’ve previously stated, I will not share or retweet ow.ly links.

I’ll look for another provider that is sharing the same news.

If it’s original content from that publisher, I’ll navigate to the source and re-shorten the link, if the story is compelling enough to do so.

Thankfully, I can shorten URLs using http://bit.ly and Twittelator Pro, simply replacing “http” with “twit” in mobile Safari on my iPhone, though it’s obviously onerous to do so.

I hope that Hootsuite will simply permanently remove the Adsense feature. After all, it’s not working now.

And I hope that I’m wrong about the SEO issue – though as I wrote, it appears ow.ly has a 200, not a 301 redirect. That’s something Hootsuite can and should fix soon.

The social bar isn’t likely to go away, just like the social bars from LinkedIn, Facebook and Digg. It’s not hard to anticipate scenarios where content publishers raise copyright concerns should third-party advertising end up in those bars as well, a future that may well be coming given the considerable pressures to monetize these platforms and social networks.

In the meantime, we as users and publishers can choose not to use them and encourage reforms in their technical underpinnings.

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