Uber’s arrival in a new city is often met with cheers from customers who are eager to use the popular transportation service–as well as protests from turf-protecting taxi drivers and cease-and-desist letters from government officials. Such a mixed reception is not surprising when an upstart business expands as quickly and aggressively as Uber has. But the company that aims to be “everyone’s private driver” has run into a series of PR problems lately that may not be as easy to dismiss as a yellow-cab picket.
Uber’s most recent headache began on Nov. 17, when a BuzzFeed editor published a suggestion from company executive Emil Michael that Uber should spend $1 million digging up dirt on reporters who criticize the company, looking into “your personal lives, your families.” Uber later stated that it will do no such thing, and Michael apologized. A day later, the company said it is investigating one of its top executives for tracking a journalist’s Uber ride without her permission using an internal tool called God View, which allows corporate employees to monitor the location of Uber cars and waiting passengers.
The revelations are the latest obstacle for a company that has grown with remarkable speed. In five years, Uber has gone from a San Francisco startup to an at least $17 billion private company operating in 49 countries, thanks to its smartphone-driven model. As the customer base grew, so did the allegations of lax oversight and shoddy safety. Uber drivers have been accused of kidnapping passengers, putting a blind rider’s companion animal in the trunk of a car and, in one case, attacking a passenger with a hammer.
While such stories are not typical, they bolster critics at a time when city halls and statehouses are weighing how to regulate new car services that don’t fit into (and often don’t attempt to adhere to) existing laws. Some cities, like Portland, Ore., have banned new services that don’t follow the same operating procedures of old-style taxis. Others, like Anchorage and Memphis, are scrambling to balance demand for a modern, convenient alternative to cabs with concerns about public safety.
Some users publicly quit using the company’s service after the latest flap, but Uber’s rapid expansion may be proof that most people like it too much to be turned off. As Kemp Conrad, a Memphis city councilman, says of his push to legalize Uber in the River City: “It’s very, very popular.”
This appears in the December 01, 2014 issue of TIME.