Uber's fall from grace, Equifax hack, #MeToo: Tech scandals, 2017-18

The honeymoon is over for the ride-hailing company. The same goes for Twitter and Facebook.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
13 min read

This is when things went from bad to worse. We learned Facebook, Twitter and the rest of social media were used as propaganda tools by Russia, North Korea, Iran and other countries hoping to interfere in the US elections. The #MeToo movement exposed sexual harassment and other bad behavior throughout Silicon Valley. And Uber's self-driving car killed someone.

If the middle of the decade was when things started to go wrong, this is when the turn became unmistakable. 


Politicians who'd spent years cozying up to tech execs like they were rock star icons of the American dream were now threatening to write laws to rein them in. The US Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice and congressional committees began taking a hard look at whether the privacy failures at Facebook and Google were illegal. 

The span from 2017 to 2018 was when America's love affair with the tech world faded

The do-gooder persona cultivated by executives like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter chief Jack Dorsey, Google head Sundar Pichai and so many others fell apart. In its place, we saw execs seemingly clueless about the rampant abuse on their platforms.

This is the third part of our series about the biggest tech scandals of the decade. Part 1 focused on, among other things, Apple Maps, Netflix's price hikes and Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency. Part 2 covered GamerGate, Theranos and Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 fires

Now we look at the fallout from tech's failure to effectively self-govern.

We want to hear from you. Let us know which scandal you think was the worst and why.


Credit-monitoring service Equifax, the company you usually go to when you've lost your personal information, managed to get itself hacked, losing 145.5 million Social Security numbers. 

Then there was the company's initial reaction, which directed you toward signing up for its own credit check service and at the same time potentially waiving your right to a lawsuit (the company said that wasn't the case). 

The incident cost Equifax's CEO his job, and in turn he blamed a single person and "a bad scanner" for the hack.

And if that wasn't fun enough, the company fumbled its payout to affected consumers. Because of course it did. (But you still have time to sign up for a money payout or 10 years of free credit monitoring. Here's how.)

PewDiePie donation

YouTube star PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg) faced backlash after he posted a since-deleted video that showed him laughing while two men held up a sign that said "death to all Jews." 

Disney parted ways with PewDiePie and Google's YouTube canceled the second season of his reality show, a key part of the YouTube Red subscription service. His apology: a "Let's Play" gaming video in which he goes on a mission to kill Adolf Hitler in a game.

Following the incident, Kjellberg got in more trouble when, for example, he used a racial slur on a livestream. In 2018, a man said "Subscribe to PewDiePie" shortly before livestreaming a shooting rampage in which he killed more than 50 people at two Mosques in New Zealand. Kjellberg said he was "sickened" by what happened, and afterward attempted to respond by donating $50,000 to the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate group. But he backed off those plans after criticism from fans.


2017 was a year when men who behaved (really) badly faced their reckoning. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein became a poster child for sexual harassment, but he wasn't alone. Venture capital executives were already falling over themselves to issue apologies, and it soon became clear this behavior was more prevalent than anyone wanted to admit. 

Justin Caldbeck, co-founder of Silicon Valley venture capital fund Binary Capital, apologized for using his "position of power in exchange for sexual gain" and took an indefinite leave of absence after The Information reported on his behavior. (He's since sued his former business partner, claiming mismanagement of the fund after he left.)

Chris Sacca, an early investor in companies like Twitter, Uber and Instagram, issued an apology after he was named in a New York Times report about sexual harassment in the tech startup field.

Dave McClure was another venture capitalist named in the New York Times report. McClure resigned as a general partner of 500 Startups, which he founded in 2010. He's since started a new fund, called Practical Venture Capital.

Frank Artale, a managing partner at Ignition Partners, resigned after a complaint of misconduct.

Steve Jurvetson left his namesake firm, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, amid allegations of sexual harassment. He's since founded a new early-stage venture firm called Future Ventures.


The ride-hailing company was wracked with scandals and saw a spectacular fall from grace that led to five separate Department of Justice investigations and the crumbling of its executive leadership.

Leaked emails and videos over the year showed everything from then-CEO Travis Kalanick berating an Uber driver to descriptions of drug-fueled staff parties in Las Vegas. One revelation exposed high-level executives consorting with escorts in South Korea. 

The company was also caught using possibly illegal software. One program, "Greyball," was created to help drivers evade police and the other, "Hell," was designed to spy on rival Lyft

The turmoil hit Uber where it hurts. The world's highest-valued venture backed startup, with a valuation of $68 billion at the time, saw a loss in investor confidence and a decline in customers


The #DeleteUber movement was the first domino to fall for the ride-hailing company. Back in January, shortly after President Donald Trump took the oath of office, Uber was riding high, and CEO Travis Kalanick had been appointed to the president's strategic forum of business leaders. 

Then Trump issued his travel ban. As protests raged across the country and tech industry heavyweights slammed the rules that would bar immigration from seven majority Muslim countries, Kalanick's reaction was seen as not sufficiently critical. 

Meanwhile, Uber halted surge pricing during a taxi strike aligned with protests at New York's JFK airport, which was seen as both breaking the strike and profiting off the demonstrations. Hence, #DeleteUber was born. En masse, passengers wiped the app from their phones. It's estimated Uber lost roughly 500,000 customers.


A single blog post by a former employee marked the beginning of the end of Uber's freewheeling days. In February, Susan Fowler published an essay titled "Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber." The post said the company was overrun by a chaotic corporate culture and unprofessional business practices. It also detailed specific instances of sexual harassment and preferential treatment toward male employees. 

In an anecdote, Fowler said male employees in one department were given leather jackets but women were left out. Why? Because there simply weren't enough female employees to justify placing an order for smaller sizes. 

This blog post led to two internal investigations into Uber's business practices and the toppling of its chain of command. 

Ultimately, Kalanick was forced out, though he remains on the board of directors. In his place was new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who eventually brought Uber to its IPO


The federal government is going to need a good plumber because it's got a serious leak problem. Both the CIA and the National Security Agency saw their hacking tools and secrets exposed to the public. WikiLeaks released several CIA secrets, including how the agency hacked phones, TVs and computers to spy on people. After hacking group Shadow Brokers exposed the NSA tools, hackers used the information to create a massive ransomware attack, known as WannaCry.


Though Twitter showed progress combating harassment and abusive behavior in 2017, it still has a long way to go. CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted late last year to ask for suggestions to improve the platform, and curbing harassment was a top response. While the hate remains, Twitter said in July it had disciplined 10 times more accounts than it did the previous year. By October, Dorsey tweeted that more changes were coming. This was mostly in response to the #WomenBoycottTwitter protest urging folks to not tweet for a day to make Twitter improve how it examines content. 

Dorsey tweeted: "We believe showing our thinking and work in real-time will help build trust." Twitter stripped the verified badges of white supremacists Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler and banned alt-right troll Tim Gionet, aka @BakedAlaska. Naturally, the moves became a trending topic.


There's an old conspiracy theory that Apple strategically slows down people's phones when it launches new ones. The idea, in theory, is to cajole customers into buying new phones. 

Well, it turned out to be true. Kinda. What we learned in late 2017 was that Apple's software does slow down phones when it senses batteries aren't performing well, to prevent the phones from randomly crashing

Considering this has been a long-running conspiracy theory, the controversy became a firestorm. Apple apologized for not being forthright, and offered to replace everyone's -- everyone's -- batteries for $29 each, instead of charging them the typical $79.


At the beginning of 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his New Year's resolution was to fix Facebook. He'd likely agree that he didn't accomplish that task. In March, The New York Times and The Guardian's Observer broke the news that the social networking giant had covered up a massive data leak of people's names, emails, likes and friends that affected as many as 87 million people

Propelling the scandal further: Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy that received the data, had worked for Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. In the end, Zuckerberg was called to Capitol Hill to give his first public testimony to the Senate and House of Representatives. Of course, that turned out to be a scandal of its own…


A little over a month after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Zuckerberg began his first public testimony before a joint hearing of the Senate's Commerce and Judiciary Committees. Congress and the public were pissed. Polls showed eroding trust in Facebook. It looked like lawmakers were preparing to regulate the whole tech industry over the episode. 

About an hour in, however, Facebook's shares shot up. Wall Street was convinced the show was a nothing burger because senators embarrassed themselves asking the most basic of questions. When one senator asked how the company makes money, Zuckerberg replied, "Senator, we run ads." Cheers broke out at Facebook HQ, where the proceeding was being watched and, of course, someone turned it into a T-shirt. Legislation, meanwhile has lost momentum, and even the widely supported "Honest Ads Act" hasn't gotten off the ground.


The New York Times reported in October that Google had routinely paid high-profile men at the company to leave when it discovered credible allegations of sexual misbehavior. Android boss Andy Rubin, for example, was reportedly paid $90 million to leave in 2014. The Times' findings enraged many Google employees, sparking walkouts at its offices around the world.

One positive outcome: The company dropped a requirement that sexual harassment and assault complaints go to arbitration. Other tech companies, including Facebook, have followed suit.


Logan Paul, one of YouTube's biggest stars, posted videos to his 15 million subscribers late last year chronicling a trip to Japan. Many of the videos were eye-roll worthy enough. One example: He threw large Pokemon balls at people on the street. But things got unpleasant when he visited a forest that's become a magnet for suicides. While the cameras were rolling, he and his crew found a body -- video that he later uploaded. The resulting firestorm prompted YouTube to boot him from a special advertising program, while sponsors backed away. YouTube also delayed the release of a new video series he'd worked on with the company. Nearly a year later, he's ended up with 3 million more subscribers than he had before the fiasco. 

(If you're in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK [8255], or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.)


The year kicked off with two massive vulnerabilities, as security researchers disclosed Spectre and Meltdown: major flaws in processing chips that could let attackers steal sensitive data. The vulnerability was most notable for its potential impact, possibly affecting chips in computers and mobile devices going back as far as 20 years. 

Companies rushed to fix the problems with software updates, which were plagued with their own issues, as initial fixes noticeably slowed down some devices. And researchers discovered more variants of Spectre and Meltdown in May and November of 2018.


By the fall, many people were offering this unsolicited advice to Elon Musk: Stop tweeting. And it isn't hard to see why. His tweets have always been controversial, particularly when they're critical of female journalists, inspiring his army of trollish followers to harass and threaten them. But three episodes in particular stood out.

Musk loves to tweet announcements about Tesla. He's announced features for the cars on Twitter, such as a major upgrade to autopilot, and he's discussed production successes and shortfalls. Earlier in 2018, he tweeted about staying at the Tesla plant in Fremont, California, past his birthday in an effort to eke out a goal of producing 5,000 Model 3 sedans in a week. His and Tesla's public statements landed him in hot water with the Department of Justice, which is investigating him over statements about when Tesla would be able to produce that many cars per week, and whether he or Tesla had committed fraud. 

Over the summer, 12 boys and a soccer coach were lost, found and rescued from a deadly cave collapse in Thailand. The whole drama, which played out over more than a week, captured the world's attention. Musk also prompted a sideshow to the drama, asking his teams at SpaceX, a reusable-rocket company he runs, to help invent a small submarine to get the victims out. It wasn't used, but Musk took exception to a comment that his submarine was a "PR stunt." Musk took to Twitter to call the commenter, among other things, a "pedo guy." Musk eventually apologized, but then revived the unsubstantiated claim, leading the man to eventually sue.

What really got people's attention though was Musk's tweet in early August, saying he was "considering" taking Tesla private and had enough funds secured to buy the company at $420 per share. (He said he arrived at the number by rounding up from $419 per share, but it's hard not to see it as a pot joke.) The Securities and Exchange Commission got involved when it turned out the funding wasn't secured, issuing a subpoena as it investigated whether Musk had "intentionally misled investors." In September, Tesla and Musk settled with the SEC, paying a combined $40 million fine. Musk also agreed to step down as chairman of Tesla, appoint two new independent directors to the company's board and create a committee of independent directors to oversee Musk's communications (i.e. his tweets).


For the first time, a self-driving car in full autonomous mode struck and killed a pedestrian. Uber was testing the vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, at 10 p.m. on a Sunday in March when, traveling at 38 mph, it hit a woman as she was walking her bike across a dark street. 

After preliminary investigations by Uber, Arizona police, the National Transportation Safety Board and the US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it was initially concluded that Uber had disabled emergency braking maneuvers in the vehicle. 

Uber halted its self-driving car program at the time of the crash and has yet to reinstate testing of its vehicles in full autonomous mode. 

The company said in a statement that self-driving cars will "ultimately make transportation safer, more efficient and more affordable," and that it remains committed to making that future a reality.

So far, though, it appears excitement for self-driving car tech has fallen, though not entirely. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that Uber's driver minding the self-driving car from behind the wheel was at fault for the crash because she was on her phone rather than monitoring road safety.

"Ultimately, it will be the public that accepts or rejects automated driving systems, and the testing of such systems on public roads," said NTSB chair Robert Sumwalt said in a statement. "Any company's crash affects the public's confidence. Anybody's crash is everybody's crash."


In May of 2018, CNET had the exclusive on a next-generation artificial intelligence technology from Google, a program called Duplex. This virtual helper sounded crazily lifelike, down to the verbal tics we all have like "umm" and "uhh." 

Google demonstrated the technology, having the Duplex-enabled Assistant make reservations at a local restaurant, playing recorded examples of the tech, and having the AI tool navigate accents and many other obstacles you'd expect to trip up a computer. At first blush, you might've expected some sort of Bond villain to have invented this Duplex. But the controversy was sparked by something our reporter Rich Nieva picked up on in his initial story: Google wasn't disclosing when we were talking to a computer or a human being

It became a PR headache for what otherwise was going to be a whirlwind announcement about how advanced Google's AI had become. A few days later, we reported that Google intended to make clear you're talking to a robot after all. So, no need to worry if the Terminator's on the other end of the line, pretending to be your stepmom. Yet.


It sounded too good to be true: A $10 per month subscription that let you watch a movie a day, every day, in most theaters around the US. Considering many tickets cost at least $3 more than that just to see one flick, this was an obvious steal. Well, it turns out MoviePass was built on a gym membership-like business plan, where the people who sign up but don't use the service subsidize those who do. That seemed to work OK for the first six years it was in business and charging initially $50 a month. But then the company lowered its rates to $10 a month and things went nuts. 

More than 150,000 people subscribed in just two days, according to Deadline. But unexpectedly, many of those people aggressively used their benefits, causing the company to change its business plan in public, several times. It ended 2018 by allowing people to watch only three movies a month, with blackouts

The whole ordeal became the talk of the internet for the summer, which may've hurt MoviePass' brand. The stock price for Helios and Matheson Analytics, its parent company, crashed from around $1,800 per share at the beginning of 2018 to hovering at around 2 cents a share by the end of the year. In 2019, MoviePass shut down

On the plus side, MoviePass pushed other companies, like AMC and Cinemark, to respond with their own offerings.

What a decade, and we're not even done yet. We'll be publishing the 2019 edition of our annual list of the tech industry's screwups and misadventures on Friday. In the meantime, if you can't wait for more 2010s nostalgia, head over to our Decade In Review page to relive more of the news you may've forgotten