Will Uber's crisis shake Silicon Valley's confidence?

Uber CEO launches sexual harassment probe
Uber CEO launches sexual harassment probe

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Uber CEO launches sexual harassment probe 01:49

Charles Arthur was technology editor of The Guardian from 2005-2014 and at The Independent from 1995-2004. He is currently writing a book on hacking incidents. He blogs at The Overspill. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)The British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb captured perfectly the moment when realization dawns.

Their comic skit opens with Webb, as a German commander, striding around an artillery encampment: "Now we'll see how these Russians deal with a crack SS division," he says firmly.
Mitchell comes over, looking concerned. "Hans," he says. "I've just noticed something. Have you looked at our caps recently? The badges on our caps. They've got skulls on them. Actually got little pictures of skulls on them." He pauses. "Hans," he says, a growing horror in his voice. "Are we the baddies?"
One can imagine a scene a little like this playing out in the officer of Uber, the taxi-but-don't-call-it-a-taxi business. Uber likes to say it's not just a cheap cab service -- it's "redefining the city".
    But in the past two months, a growing number of executives have departed, most recently its president of ride-sharing, Jeff Jones, as allegations of an ingrained culture of sexism allied with an aggressive attitude that rides roughshod over regulators and safety has become too loud to ignore. Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick has taken the allegations seriously enough to order an internal investigation.
    Jones told Recode: "The beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber." In other words: are we the baddies?
    Meanwhile Google is being hauled before the UK government's Cabinet Office to explain how adverts for the latter ended up on extremist videos on YouTube -- where the video makers get a cut of the advertising money.
    The revelation prompted the withdrawal of millions of pounds of advertising by other brands including The Guardian, Marks & Spencer and the media buying agency Havas, which controls £175m of spending for clients.
    Again, you can imagine the astonishment in the Google offices: we're giving money to extremists? Are we the baddies?
    Google's European chief Matt Brittin has said that the company is sorry and "looking again at how we improve what we're doing on enforcement," but didn't outline any solid policy changes when he spoke at the Advertising Week Europe conference in London.
    Tech companies are often encouraged to have an exaggerated view of themselves and the world. Steve Jobs urged Apple to make a "dent in the universe." Google has "moonshots." Mark Zuckerberg exhorted Facebook's programmers to "move fast and break things."
    Uber CEO: I need to 'grow up'
    Uber CEO: I need to 'grow up'

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      Uber CEO: I need to 'grow up'

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    Uber CEO: I need to 'grow up' 01:16
    The Silicon Valley ideal is "disruption" -- tearing everything apart, throwing all the cards in the air. Why, you're not just collecting and delivering washing door-to-door -- you're disrupting laundromats. Never mind that lots of people need laundromats. They're stick-in-the-muds who'll soon discover how wonderful it is to spend a quarter of their weekly wage on cleaning.
    And tax? As the fictional Valley company executive in Armando Iannucci's satirical TV series Veep told the vice-president, "we like to think we're post-tax."
    But surely if you're changing the world, that can't be bad -- can it? Look at Facebook, connecting everyone and making the world a better place. Oh, no, don't tell me it's also host to fake news, illicit gun sales and child abuse imagery.
    How about Twitter, whose mission statement is "To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers." That wasn't meant to include attacks coordinated by huffy video game players on women or sexist racists attack the actress Leslie Jones, even though it has been warned about an incipient abuse problem for years.
    Facebook has since updated its policy concerning posts about firearm sales, and has reported people circulating child abuse images to the police, but in both instances, the company relies on active users reporting misuse of the platform. Twitter, similarly, updated its policies for reporting abuse in November, allowing bystanders watching abuse happen to report an abusive user. It's not hard to see why critics don't think that these measures go far enough.
    But nobody at Twitter or Facebook could quite believe they might be the baddies -- all they want to do is good in the world. But you know what they say about the road to hell.
    Having a blinkered view of the world is necessary in the early stages of a technology company, when there's a need to find revenue and profit. But there comes a time for responsibility -- and a little self-examination. As the author Stephen King observed, "nobody thinks of themselves as the bad guy." Yet sometimes that's where you find yourself.
    Silicon Valley's big companies are so powerful now that their bad traits routinely affect thousands; on a bad day, millions, or even entire countries. In which case yes, they are the baddies. We can't fix that. They have to.