The 13-year history of Uber’s meteoric rise, from a disruptive startup to a household name, has not been without controversy. But a new leak of confidential documents, dubbed the Uber Files and published July 11, lay bare just how far the tech firm went to secure its international expansion and stamp out any opposition.
Despite its reputation as a tech trailblazer, Uber pushed its agenda the “old-fashioned way.” The Silicon Valley giant didn’t spare resources as it sought to influence key decision-makers around the world – its global lobbying budget was $90 million for 2016 alone.
The files, obtained by The Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), reveal how Uber worked closely with public officials to secure the company’s presence in new markets by working around existing laws and even drafting new ones.
The documents also indicate that Uber used custom technology to thwart investigations by police and regulators, reportedly sought to take advantage of violence against its drivers, and shared drivers’ data with authorities to avert tax audits.
The Uber Files cover the period between 2013 when the tech firm accelerated its global expansion and 2017 when it ousted its controversial CEO Travis Kalanick. Mark MacGann, Uber’s former top lobbyist in Europe, is the whistleblower who leaked the files to the media.
One of the most prominent political figures that Uber kept in touch with, according to the leaked files, is the current president of France Emmanuel Macron. Then-economy minister Macron was on a first-name basis with Uber’s Kalanick, whom he met and texted multiple times.
When in 2015, regulators in Marseille appeared to ban UberX citing clashes during cab-driver protests, Uber’s MacGann got in touch with Macron asking him to check with his cabinet and help the firm “understand what is going on.” The minister replied: “I will look at this personally. Have all the facts sent to me and we will make a decision by this evening. At this point, let’s stay calm.” Two days later, authorities in Marseille “clarified” the ban and in effect reversed it.
Another questionable tactic Uber used to evade scrutiny was the so-called “kill switch” which cut off a local office’s access to the company’s servers in the event of a police raid. According to the Uber Files, during a police raid in Amsterdam then-CEO Kalanick personally asked for the kill switch to be activated. “Please hit the kill switch ASAP … Access must be shut down in AMS,” an email from Kalanick’s account said.
The kill switch is not the only technology Uber used to sidestep authorities. The leaked documents reveal the tech giant took steps to identify officials who appeared to hail rides to gather evidence. Uber then showed these officials a fake version of its app with non-existent cars that never showed up. What’s more, Uber employees considered the idea of “blackout geofences” that would restrict access to the company’s app around police stations in Denmark.
According to ICIJ, the files also shine a light on Kalanick’s apparent desire to spin the harm to Uber drivers as a positive for the company. In 2016, when French cab driver protests against Uber turned violent, Kalanick and MacGann discussed organizing counter-demonstrations and Kalanick seemed to suggest there was an upside to the danger faced by drivers: “I think it’s worth it.. Violence guarantee[s] success.”
Uber sought to make drivers shoulder the burden in other ways too, according to the leaked records. In 2015, when Big Tech was facing increased scrutiny over tax avoidance practices, Uber execs discussed ideas on how to deflect tax authorities’ attention from the company to its drivers. According to ICIJ, the ride-hailing firm went so far as to take concrete steps to shift the conversation from Uber to its drivers’ tax compliance. For instance, the company partnered with Estonian authorities to test a tax-filing platform that ensures drivers paid taxes.
In the wake of the Uber Files leak, Kalanick issued a statement denying the allegations made in connection to the records. The firm itself said that it revised the ethically dubious practices used before Kalanick stepped down as CEO. But whether Uber faces legal repercussions or not, the Uber Files show that a company’s public image may not necessarily match what is revealed by a glimpse under the hood.