12 controversial decisions reversed by tech CEOs, leaders

Everyone loves a controversy, except when it involves them. From brand splits and picking the wrong side over public opinion, we look back at some of the poorly thought-out business decisions made by tech executives and leaders in recent history.
By Zack Whittaker on
1 of 12 James Martin/CNET

1. Instagram backtracks on selling user photos

Instagram, the Web's favorite filter-based image sharer, sparked controversy when it changed its privacy policy allowing the company to license user-uploaded photos, as well as using in advertisements. The policy change meant that customers would not be paid for photos that were sold on. It also essentially turned the free-to-use service into one of the world's largest stock photo companies.

The new policy came just three months after Facebook acquired the company for $1 billion for its 100 million users.

The decision to adjust the language in the privacy policy was taken days after users threatened a mass threat revolt of the service. Instagram said in a statement that it was "not our intention to sell your photos."

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2. Microsoft turns back on bid to restrict playing pre-owned games

As described by The Guardian, it was one of those rare moments when "the internet won."

Following a decision to force users to require an Internet connection to play offline games, or simply connect every 24 hours just to "check in" with the software giant, Microsoft pulled the policy after heavy criticism from the online gaming community. Instead, the long-awaited console will only need to connect when setting up the console.

Much anger surrounded Microsoft's decision to restrict used games. The policy change will allow game discs to be exchanged just as they were with the Xbox 360, with no additional restrictions for lending games or trade-ins. The company earlier in the month took another public relations dive by reversing its previously held policy on forcing users to keep the Kinect sensor plugged into their Xbox One consoles.

After a recent spate of leaks detailing the U.S. government's surveillance efforts, many were concerned the motion-sensing device could be used to spy on home living rooms.

The two reversals came at a time when the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant was stepping up its competition with Sony in the games consoles war.

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3. Yahoo CEO breaks silence over telecommuting ban

Millions of Americans enjoy the benefits of working from home. Many actively enjoy it. But Yahoo's relatively new chief executive Marissa Mayer didn't like the idea — not one bit. Just months after starting at the company, the former Google executive banned telecommuting at Yahoo, forcing all employees to muck-in at their respective local offices.

The decision alone was controversial, but it was only compounded by a lack of explanation behind the move. Eventually, she lifted the veil of silence by stating at a conference in Los Angeles, "I need to talk about the elephant in the room." But, Mayer refused to back down from the new rule.

In short, it was a U-turn in some sense, even if it wasn't a complete reversal on the policy itself.

4 of 12 Netflix

4. Netflix backs off Qwikster split

Netflix remains one of the most popular Internet streaming services to date. But one decision led the company's boss Reed Hastings to retreat from a service spin-off that had customers screaming at their television sets. 

The plan was simple: split the company in half to create Qwikster, a DVD-by-mail service, so that it can focus on its bread-and-butter, Netflix, as its main online video service. That angered customers and investors, which saw the firm's share price plummet even further, not long after its stock suffered following a price increase.

But three painful weeks later, Hastings backtracked on the plan. A year later, things are back to normal for the company. More so, in fact: the streaming service is booming in the U.S. market as well as internationally, adding more than 1 million customers each quarter. 

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5. HP decides against ditching PC business

When a company announces it's looking at "strategic alternatives" for a division or the whole corporate package, that's industry geek-speak for a spin-off or a sale. When computer maker HP announced it would do exactly that with its PC building division back in 2011, Wall Street was lost for words.

The firm, which at the time was run by chief executive Leo Apotheker, said it would restructure the company to ditch the PC unit as well as its mobile platform webOS. The upshot was it would acquire enterprise firm Autonomy to all but offset the shift in company priorities.

Apotheker was fired not long after. Out with the old, in with the new. Meg Whitman was replaced in the top job, and, actually, back in with the old, as she decided to reverse the PC sell-off decision and return the company back to its PC making former glory.

The bottom line for Whitman: it was too costly to spin off the unit, and without PCs and printers, HP just wouldn't be itself anymore.

6 of 12 ZDNet

6. GoDaddy supports, then opposes proposed anti-piracy law

When the vast majority of the top Silicon Valley tech giants come out in opposition of an anti-piracy law that basically resulted in a huge portion of the Internet shutting its doors for the day in protest, you can all but bet there will be one falling way, way behind.

Enter GoDaddy, the domain and Web hosting company, which came out in support of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Had it passed Congress, it would've allowed rights holders (and fraudsters) file claims that could result in websites shuttering, based on loose claims they allegedly infringe copyright. "Allegedly" was enough of a reason to protest the bill. But for all intents and purposes, SOPA was an Internet censorship bill.

Following extreme criticism and opposition to the company's move, GoDaddy quickly reversed its position — not least to try and get back the hundreds of thousands of customers it lost in the process as a result, including Wikipedia. The company said the bills had "not fulfilled its basic requirement to build a consensus among stake-holders in the technology and Internet community."

In other words: nobody supported it — for good reason — and neither will GoDaddy. 

7 of 12 ZDNet

7. Barnes & Noble reverses strategy, plows on with tablet business

Not content with its traditional brick-and-mortar stores, Barnes & Noble dipped its feet into the tablet and e-reader pool just at the right time to drum up competition against its main rival, Amazon. 

But after a difficult quarter where the Nook tablet division saw its revenues drop by 34 percent, the company announced it was "limiting risks associated with manufacturing" by no longer manufacturing color Android-based tablets. The move would see the firm instead focus on their core business of e-readers. 

A few months later, the bookselling giant changed its mind. In "doing a Whitman," the new chief executive reversed the decision by the company's predecessor and kept the full breadth of devices on store shelves. 

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8. Apple unravels retail chief John Browett's store policy changes

Apple retail chief John Browett's resignation couldn't come any sooner for the technology giant. The company spent six months following his "departure" unraveling some of the store-changing policies he implemented, which were considered radical and in some cases simply way off the mark — at very least in hindsight.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company retail outlets are considered the ultimate retail experience, with dozens of other retailers following suit with aesthetically welcoming store designs. But some of the decisions made by Browett during his tenure downright frustrated leadership, and that ultimately reflected on Apple customers, according to reports. His efforts to cut costs would see employee events cut and staff training reduced, which in the end impacted how Apple retail store staff interacted with customers.

It was almost a year after Browett resigned before a new retail chief was installed. Apple probably just needed space to breathe. Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts took the job as Apple senior vice president for retail and online stores in October 2013. 

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9. Uber retreats on Hurricane Sandy cab price hike in New York City

In what was a profit-driving and borderline heartless thing to do amid natural disaster and chaos on the streets of New York City following the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, Uber reversed a decision bumping its prices soon after the storm hit.

New Yorkers were already faced with limited transport and downed infrastructure. On-demand car service startup Uber to the rescue, many thought. Wrong. The company doubled its car service pricing, citing increased demand in the city, in the aftermath of Sandy. Citing "surge pricing," the company said it raises prices when the demand for cars is higher than usual. The company said in a blog post the service "would become essentially unusable" if it didn't put the surge pricing in effect. But of course, New Yorkers left without power and running water didn't see it quite that way.

Despite nearly breaking the bank, which it may have deserved after its ill-thought out decision, the company backtracked a day later. The company said it reconsidered its position while, "we figure out more sustainable ways to keep supply up while the city is in need." 

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10. Apple withdraws, then reapplies to EPEAT environmental rating program

While millions around the world love Apple's products, it turns out they love its commitment to the environment just as much.

In June 2012, Apple pulled the plug on its membership to environmental green standard group, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) group without saying a word or even explaining why. Naturally, the media went on a field day with the news because, frankly, Apple "did a thing." The iPhone and iPad maker played down the reports, saying it would still make its products meet the EPEAT guidelines.

Just shy of a month later following a deluge of criticism from customers (and a vow from the City of San Francisco to stop buying its products in response to Apple's move), the company's hardware engineer chief Bob Mansfield issued an open letter apologizing for bailing on the greenness standard, and announced it was back on EPEAT. 

11 of 12 White House/Flickr

11. White House vetoes ITC ban decision on older iPhones, iPads

The U.S. International Trade Commission found earlier this year that Apple had violated a Samsung patent, which led to a ruling that would prevent the iPhone and iPad maker from importing older versions of its smartphones and tablets into the United States.

The White House wasn't going to stand by this. At the very last minute, the government overruled the court's ruling and effectively reversed the decision. It was the last thing expected on a Saturday evening when, by all accounts, everyone should have been at home or, if they were lucky enough, be in The Hamptons.

And what happened when Samsung suffered a similar fate? Nothing. President Obama didn't lift a finger. Was it U.S. corporate favoritism? Nobody knows. Or at least, nobody wants to say. (But it probably was. Go 'Merica.)

12 of 12 CBS News

12. Facebook u-turns on violent videos

Facebook, like many Silicon Valley companies, has made it know it embraces First Amendment rights to free speech and expression. But it can go too far — particularly with the spread of propaganda-like violent videos that show decapitations.

The social network kicked up a storm when it said mid-last year it would allow such videos on the site. British Prime Minister David Cameron, head of a country that doesn't have a constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression, naturally led the storm of protest. Facebook reneged on its free speech principles a few days later, reversing a stance it took just 24 hours previously, and removed a video that had circulated far and wide.

The company said it would consider removal of violent and graphic imagery in future, but will be evaluated and based on community standards policy violations.

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