Privacy and other important legal rights are increasingly the subject of hot debate among lawyers and clients alike. But now the question raised in a Washington Post article is whether internet moguls with access to a goldmine of data have somehow elevated themselves above the law.
The issue arose after Uber Technologies executive Emil Michael reportedly smeared a journalist using private information. Other issues involving the misuse of privacy data and big name internet companies has also arisen.
The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey referred to the unaddressed issue that arose in a Thought Catalog essay, How to Steal from Whole Foods, by Mahbod Moghadam, who is a Stanford University law graduate, former Dewey & LeBoeuf attorney and co-founder of the website Rap Genius. She calls the essay, which offers tips for shoplifting from the upscale supermarket, an exercise in hubris.
“Guy graduates from prestigious law school, studies in France, helps found a multimillion dollar company … and ends up moonlighting as a grocery thief, because he can’t give up the preposterously decadent lifestyle he enjoyed as a member of the tech elite,” she writes.
The mindset, she says, is “the same cultural orientation adopted by Uber executive Michael: That this food, or information, or what have you, should belong to them as a matter of course. They do not have to ask permission, and they certainly don’t have to pay.”
First Mahbod Moghadam, formerly of lyric-explication site Genius, wrote a guide on shoplifting from Whole Foods for noted “platisher” Thought Catalog. (“I have probably stolen more from Whole Foods markets than any living person,” he begins.) Then Emil Michael, an executive for car-sharing behemoth Uber, suggested smearing a female journalist by mining Uber for details about her personal life. (Not to be outdone, occasional tech investor Ashton Kutcher quickly backed him up.)
The incidents differ in their scale and egregiousness, but they all demonstrate the same unsettling strain of entitlement: the idea that, when it comes to typical laws/ethics/standards of human behavior, tech start-ups and their luminaries are simply above the rules.
Presumably, this isn’t quite the “disruption” tech evangelists are forever gabbing about.
Let’s begin with Emil Michael, the senior vice president for business at Uber, who has fueled several consecutive news cycles off the force of one passing comment at a dinner party. Michael, apparently frustrated by the criticisms of PandoDaily editor Sarah Lacy, told Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief that he’d like to hire opposition researchers to “dig up dirt” on her — using information from her Uber travel logs.
In the Internet hullabaloo that followed, Michael’s comments were skewered from several angles: as an attack on the press, as a possible invasion of privacy, as a subtly gendered threat from a powerful man to a less powerful woman. (Michael’s defenders, for their part, went after Buzzfeed: The dinner was off-the-record, they claimed, and Buzzfeed should have known better.)
But even if Michael’s comments were off-the-record, why say them? Why even think them? It’s an odd and slippery train of thought, to claim the right to someone else’s secrets — particularly secrets that have nothing to do with their job or their role in public life.
“His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals,” tweeted Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO. “Leadership” and “values” are buzzwords, of course, but a lack of humanity — that one sticks. It suggests that Michael failed to place himself properly in the social and ethical order of things.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Mahbod Moghadam was up to shenanigans far less newsworthy — if equally demonstrative. Before his current gig as occasional Thought Catalog freelancer and semi-professional shoplifter, Moghadam helped found Genius, a nascent media powerhouse and industry darling that nabbed $60 million in funding within two years.