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Uber CEO Kalanick reportedly heckled during Colbert taping

Technically Incorrect: Audience members report that the new late-night host let a protester speak, as he criticized Uber's practices.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, confronted by objectors. James Martin/CNET

Uber can't avoid controversy, no matter how hard (or not) it tries.

On Thursday evening, during a taping of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was ready for, perhaps, a little banter.

Instead, reporters who were in the audience say that he was interrupted by a heckler who insisted that Uber represented a pestilence upon the New York taxi world. (I paraphrase slightly.)

BuzzFeed editor Rachel Zarrell, for example, tweeted: "At Colbert, audience member started protesting the Uber CEO. Amazing how Colbert just let him speak."

Business Insider said that several of its reporters were at the taping and alleged that during Kalanick's back and forth with Colbert at least one protester shouted from an upper balcony. According to Business Insider, Colbert let one objector have his say before insisting he was going to ask a question about the same issue regarding New York's taxi industry.

Kalanick appears not to have been disturbed by the protest. Zarrell tweeted: "A thing I was very impressed with today during Colbert's interview w Uber CEO is he never loses control -- it's clear the convo is always his."

She added: "And he's OK with tough questions. Like, is it for the good of humans to have surge pricing on during a crisis? (Which they have)."

Uber wasn't immediately available for comment.

In the clip posted by CBS, the protests don't appear.

Uber has encountered much opposition around the world, not least in New York. There have been concerns about its surge pricing, even among Uber drivers. The mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio has said he'd like to limit the number of Uber cars in the city.

There might be more headaches if courts continue to uphold the notion that Uber drivers are employees of the company.

Kalanick, however, defended his company like this: "Let's just take New York, for example. A taxi driver spends $40,000 a year renting a car. That should be a Bentley you're riding around in. But instead it goes to a taxi owner who owns the license."

In contrast, he said, Uber drivers own their cars, earn more per hour and can work whenever they want. He also defended surge pricing, though he said that during genuine emergencies Uber suspends the practice.

He also revealed that he drives an Uber himself sometimes. Just for fun, you understand. And of course he has a 5.0 rating. Allegedly. He won't be able to do that for too much longer as he said Google, Apple and Tesla are all heading toward the self-driving world and that is simply the future.

To my eyes and ears, Kalanick didn't seem entirely comfortable. A touch nervous, in fact. In the past, he's generally espoused a very brash attitude. This isn't easy (or wise) to do with someone as accomplished as Colbert.

Uber has espoused a "So what? We don't care" stance from its inception. It seemed to challenge laws by simply moving into cities and then counting on the usefulness of its service to get laws ultimately changed. Its aggressiveness reached its height when a senior company executive was heard to suggest Uber would dig up dirt on journalists to quiet them. Uber investor Ashton Kutcher came out in support of Uber's stance.

That episode, though, showed that there might be a limit to the company's bravado.

Kalanick's appearance on Colbert's show (Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company) was likely one more attempt to give the company a more human aspect.

It seems that opponents wanted to prevent that from happening.