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Is Silicon Valley's image going up in flames?

Tom Kaneshige | July 31, 2014
It's getting ugly in the Valley. And it's not just about gentrification. Tech companies are under fire for indirectly helping con artists dupe the public, secretly manipulating people's emotions and engaging in what looks an awful lot could be discriminatory hiring practices.

reputation under fire

Some of the most popular tech companies in Silicon Valley have been feeling the heat lately. We're not talking about the summer scorcher or record drought, rather the white-hot spotlight from the media.

Let's count the ways.

The Online Sting
Talk of the town today is about two brothers, Maksym Pashanin and Denys Pashanin, and their ability to wreak havoc on two digitally disruptive tech companies, Airbnb in San Francisco and Kickstarter in New York.

With Aribnb, the brothers gained entrance to a vacation condo in Palm Springs and became squatters, living for free by manipulating California tenant-protection laws. Maksym also has threatened to press charges against the condo's owner, Cory Tschogl, for blackmail, negligence, even over tap water that allegedly damaged an espresso machine and caused his brother's ulcer to act up, Tschogl told SFGate.

Tschogl begged Airbnb for help to no avail. Once the media got involved, though, Airbnb changed its tune.

"Our initial response to this inquiry didn't meet the standards we set for ourselves and we've apologized to this host," says Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas in a statement to SFGate. "In the last week, officials from our team have been in incredibly close contact with this host and she has been paid the full cost of the reservation and we're working with her to provide additional support as we move forward."

The about-face makes Airbnb look insincere.

Airbnb isn't the only one to suffer a public-relations black-eye at the hands of the Pashanin brothers. The squatters are also principals of Kilobite and raised $40,000 from Kickstarter to develop a zombie game, which they never did create. Kickstarter investors are crying foul and demanding their money back, but they're out of luck because Kickstarter doesn't offer any guarantees. Kilobite recently appealed to Kickstarter investors again for another game.

Kickstarter's image took a beating: Its online service appears to be full of easy marks where grifters can ply their trade with impunity.

Rats in a Maze
Earlier this month, the social-networking universe erupted with outrage over revelations that Facebook was toying with users' emotions, delivering uplifting or depressing content to users in a creepy experiment. The idea apparently is to manipulate emotions in order to sell ads. Now the Federal Trade Commission might look into this.

Adding fuel to the fire, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg offered up a non-apology apology: "This was part of ongoing research (that) companies do to test different products, and that was what it was. It was poorly communicated... And for that communication we apologize."

If Facebook can do it, others can too, right? Dating site OkCupid is following Facebook down a dangerous path with covert and arguably unethical tests on users, followed by inflammatory comments trying to justify the practice by its co-founder, Christian Rudder.

 

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