A leak of more than 124,000 documents – known as the Uber files – to British media outlet The Guardian, exposes the unethical practices that propelled Uber into becoming a global force.
The leak concerns a five-year period when Uber was run by its co-founder Travis Kalanick, who tried to push the ride-hailing service into cities worldwide, disregarding laws and taxi regulations.
The documents convey how the company responded to strong global pushback against their aggressive policies by currying favour with prime ministers, presidents, billionaires, oligarchs and media barons.
Some Uber executives appear to have been fully aware of the company’s law-breaking, with one executive joking they had become “pirates” and another admitting: “We’re just fu…ing illegal.”
The cache of files, which span 2013 to 2017, includes more than 83,000 emails, iMessages and WhatsApp messages, including often frank and unvarnished communications between Kalanick and his top team of executives.
In one such example, Kalanick dismissed concerns from other executives that sending Uber drivers to a protest in France put them at risk of violence from angry opponents in the taxi industry. “I think it’s worth it,” he responded. “Violence guarantee[s] success.”
In a statement, Kalanick’s spokesperson said he “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety” and any suggestion he was involved in such activity would be completely false.
Relationship with politicians
The leak contains texts between Kalanick and Emmanuel Macron, who secretly helped the company in France when he was economy minister, allowing Uber frequent and direct access to him and his staff.
Macron, the French president, appears to have gone to great lengths to help Uber, even telling the company he had brokered a secret “deal” with its opponents in the French cabinet.
When a French police official in 2015 appeared to ban one of Uber’s services in Marseille, Mark MacGann, Uber’s chief lobbyist in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, turned to Uber’s ally in the French cabinet.
“I will look at this personally,” Macron texted back. “At this point, let’s stay calm.”
Privately, Uber executives were dismissive of elected officials who opposed the company’s business model.
After the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who was mayor of Hamburg at the time, pushed back against Uber lobbyists and insisted on paying drivers a minimum wage, an executive told colleagues he was “a real comedian”.
When the then US vice-president, Joe Biden, a supporter of Uber at the time, was late to a meeting with the company at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Kalanick texted a colleague: “I’ve had my people let him know that every minute late he is, is one less minute he will have with me.”
After meeting Kalanick, Biden appears to have amended his prepared speech at Davos to refer to a CEO whose company would give millions of workers “freedom to work as many hours as they wish, manage their own lives as they wish”.
In a bid to curb the large backlash against the company and win changes to taxi and labour laws, Uber planned to spend an extraordinary USD 90 million in 2016 on lobbying and public relations, one document suggests.
Its strategy often involved going over the heads of city mayors and transport authorities and straight to the seat of power.
In addition to meeting Biden at Davos, Uber executives met face-to-face with Macron, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and George Osborne, the UK’s chancellor at the time. A note from the meeting portrayed Osborne as a “strong advocate”.
In response to the leak, Uber stated there had been “mistakes and missteps”, but had been transformed since 2017 under the leadership of its current chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi.
“We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values,” it said. “Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come.”
Kalanick’s spokesperson said Uber’s expansion initiatives were “led by over a hundred leaders in dozens of countries around the world and at all times under the direct oversight and with the full approval of Uber’s robust legal, policy and compliance groups”.
The leaked documents pull back the curtains on the methods Uber used to lay the foundations for its empire. One of the world’s largest work platforms, Uber is now a USD 43 billion (EUR 42 billion) company, making approximately 19 million journeys a day.
The files cover Uber’s operations across 40 countries during a period in which the firm became a global giant, aggressively pushing its cab-hailing service into many of the cities in which it still operates today.
Uber undercut established taxi and cab markets and put pressure on governments to rewrite laws to help pave the way for an app-based, gig-economy model of work that has since proliferated across the world.
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