Mar 7, 2016 · 3 minutes

Yesterday, Buzzfeed published a couple of Uber bombshells, both concerning a part of the company that hasn’t yet horrified investors, riders, drivers, and the press: Customer service workers.

The most disturbing of the two stories -- by far-- was one that detailed thousands of results that show up among Uber’s support queries when you type “rape” or “sexual assault.” Uber gave no evidence or data to rebut these screenshots factually, but it claimed the actual numbers of rapes and assaults are far lower. It suggested -- lamely-- that the results may have been inflated if someone’s name included the word “rape.” Like “Don Draper” or… “Jason Rape.” Or it could have been people complaining Uber “raped their wallets.” 

I’m not joking. These were the justifications for a serious and terrifying allegation that strikes at heart of the central lie of Uber, the last thing investors cling to: That it’s safer than cabs. That it cuts down on drunk driving because drunk men and women can trust a driver to get them home safely.

(No word on whether the company expects us to believe that the thousands of results for “Sexual Assault” are the fault of a driver named Jason Sexual Assault.)

[Update: Uber has admitted that its support software doesn't work the way it claimed. "Don Draper" would not be flagged as described. In fact, only the word Rape, or words beginning with the letters R-A-P-E would appear. In other words, their excuse is nonsese.]

I’ve wrote more than a year ago why as a woman I could no longer use the service. For me it was less about whether Uber was safer or not than a cab, but the way they treated women who claimed they’d been abused. Uber responded by threatening me, and senior executive Emil Michael (who is still employed by Uber) said I should be held personally responsible if women get raped in cabs.

So who gets held responsible for whatever truth is behind those thousands of queries? Don Draper? Jason Rape?

Hopefully other women (and men) read this and weigh whether or not the gamble is worth it for them.

But Buzzfeed’s other piece deserves some attention too. It detailed how hamstrung Uber’s customer service reps have been to respond to an avalanche of complaints. From that piece:

But between December 2014 and February 2016, some of these CSRs, as they call themselves, struggled to handle problems like Katherine’s, undermined by sudden and confusing shifts in Uber’s customer support operations. During this period, about 500 CSRs who joined the company as contractors were let go in droves — often without notice, and despite what many insist were promises of ongoing employment and even full-time gigs at Uber itself.

Meanwhile, the quality of Uber’s customer support stuttered as the company quietly replaced U.S.-based CSRs with contractors in the Philippines and India, transitioning away from its system of U.S.-based CSRs to a global one with “Centers of Excellence” in key cities in the states and abroad — sometimes via politically motivated deals. 

There’s a lot to parse in this story. The fact that Uber has scant ways for drivers or riders to alert the company over serious incidents. That the strategy for dealing with these issues seems to have changed dramatically. That even Uber’s in house team claims the company made employment promises it hasn’t kept.

But one other thing jumped out at me: It’s the actions of a company that is under financial pressure and is struggling to cut costs and make its economics work.

As I wrote before, I don’t think Uber has cut its drivers rates below subsistence level in market after market to be cruel, but because it doesn’t have a choice. It’s spending billions chasing international markets-- with minority market share in the largest of them, China. It’s running out of places to raise its next $1 billion from, and it’s running out of new stories to tell about why it should be worth more. The last round was wealthy individuals and Russian oligarchs. Meantime, Uber had to invest in Uber China itself in order to close that round. And the company is beyond priced for perfection-- it has the highest valuation not just of this era but in Silicon Valley history.