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Cashing in on Facebook perks goes way too far

By Chang Jun (China Daily USA)

Updated: 2015-09-08 04:19:34


The Mecca of new ideas in the eyes of many innovators, Silicon Valley has drawn entrepreneurs from all over who dream of shaking the world up. Some succeed - such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin with Google; Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook; Steve Jobs and Apple.

Some, well, just stoop to new lows in the guise of innovation.

Last week, a little story about a tech startup and its Chinese founder went viral on popular Chinese social media Weibo and Wechat. It detailed how the lack of a moral compass caused several Facebook engineers to lose their jobs, as a few other US companies were launching investigations into possible conflicts of interest. Cashing in on Facebook perks goes way too far

The trouble-maker, Chummy, is a shared-economy platform through which local Chinese expats in big cities across the US can host travelers from China, squire them around and later get reimbursed for providing unique travel experiences. As far as business models go, it's not unlike a Chinese-version of Airbnb focused on providing tailored US travel services.

Established in May by Liu Chang, former vice-president and chief of public relations at Chinese tech giant Tencent, Chummy is based in the Silicon Valley and aims to cash in on the influx of deep-pocketed Chinese tourists into the US.

Currently, many Chinese tourists are looking beyond the old-fashioned cookie-cutter travel services, such as standard sight-seeing and photo taking, said Alice Wen from a San Francisco travel agency. "They are more interested in strolling around like the locals, eating and playing at places like the local patrons do," she said.

As a result, an increasing number of Chinese tourists come to the San Francisco Bay area hoping to - besides sipping wine in Napa Valley and canoeing in Lake Tahoe - get at least a passing glimpse of tech giants like Facebook, Airbnb, Google and Apple.

"A tour of the campuses of these tech companies is becoming more and more popular among our Chinese clients," said Wen.

According to a handful of sources, Chummy's marketing and sales team approached employees of Chinese background at top technology companies in Silicon Valley, and lured them into unofficial tour guides. These tours serve as a linkage for Liu Chang to use her high-tech connections and industry authority to create a unique value-added proposition for Chummy's users, according to industry insiders.

"For example, a Chinese Facebook employee was hosting guests from Chummy, giving them tours of Facebook's campus and offices during working hours, and treating them to meals at Facebook's dining halls and snack shops," said Yimin Lv, a software engineer. "The practice actually is abusing Facebook's perks, such as free meals for family members and guests of its employees."

Worse, the employee was allegedly using working hours at employer's expense for personal gain and to Chummy's interest, Lv added. "Either way, it's unethical and a breach of the employee code of conduct."

Facebook's management started an investigation several months ago and fired several Chinese employees last week, including one who was allegedly terminated on the spot for hosting several guests in one day and earning $200 from Chummy - an act that violated the Facebook's confidentiality agreement and posed a threat to the company.

Calling Chummy a potential hazard given Liu Chang's background at Tencent, Facebook earlier had filed an attorney's letter to Chummy, said the resource.

Google and Apple were reported to have started internal investigations into Chummy's penetration and practices on their campuses, too.

In an open letter and through her social media posts, Liu Chang emphasized Chummy's spirit of innovation and assured those fired that she would try her best to help them locate new jobs and resolve their visa problems.

Liu even talked to Mark Zuckerberg. "Chinese people have strong emotions. If you're nice to Chinese people, the favor will be returned," she said. "We just want to change the world. My conception of Facebook's ‘break things' slogan is a spirit of innovation."

These remarks only evoked more criticism leveled at Liu and Chummy. "She still does not understand what went wrong," said one posting on Weibo. "Liu and Chummy are encouraging dishonesty and theft of free resources, it's nothing about innovation."

To date, no legal actions have been taken and Chummy has suspended its Silicon Valley services based on a notice on their website.

Contact the writer at Junechang@chinadailyusa.com.