Ride sharing company Uber used unethical and potentially illegal methods to fuel its aggressive expansion to more than 70 countries, a cache of leaked confidential files suggests.
Among other things, Uber reportedly lobbied top politicians to relax laws, evaded regulatory authorities, and considered leveraging violent backlash against its own drivers to gather public and regulatory support.
The leaked cache consists of more than 124,000 records, including 83,000 emails and 1,000 other files – collectively called the 'Uber files'. These files span 2013 to 2017, when Uber was led by its controversial CEO Travis Kalanick.
The documents were first leaked to The Guardian, which shared them with The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a nonprofit network of reporters, to facilitate "a global investigation in the public interest".
Here are some of the major revelations:
Protecting Uber's Reputation After Delhi Rape
On 5 December 2014, a 25-year-old woman was raped by an Uber driver in his cab. The incident, according to the Uber files, reportedly caused panic at the company's headquarters in San Francisco as executives scrambled to protect the Uber's reputation.
The company immediately blamed India's system of Background Checks (BGCs) since the rapist had previous allegations on his record that the police hadn't identified, according to The Indian Express.
“We’re in crisis talks right now and the media is blazing… The Indian driver was indeed licensed, and the weakness/flaw appears to be in the local licensing scheme," Mark MacGann, then Uber’s Head of Public Policy for Europe and Middle East, wrote.
“We are in the process of platinum-plating our background checks in other regions, given the issue in India (where the official State system is at fault, not Uber)," he later added.
Uber's services were temporarily banned in Delhi and company executives went into damage control mode to prevent a domino effect on operations in other cities. Similar efforts took place in other countries as well.
Panic Buttons 'For Show'
In 2018 Delhi Government's transport department notified that all cabs in the city must have GPS-linked panic buttons.
However, as part of the ICIJ investigation, The Indian Express found that the panic buttons installed in most Ubers do not function. 50 Uber rides were booked in Delhi over a month and only two had a functioning panic button while 29 did not have them at all.
The investigation also revealed that there is a lack of integration between the system that sends the panic button signals to the monitoring agency, and the system through with the agency informs the police.
Time is wasted figuring out the right jurisdiction and contacting the police there, officials told the publication.
Building a Lobbying Network
One of the most striking revelations in the Uber Files is how the company built connections with top politicians and officials over the years in order to secure its growth.
With the help of an advisory firm, the company had prepared a list of over 1,850 “stakeholders” from different countries which top executives would seek meetings with. These included public officials, bureaucrats, members of think tanks and transportation experts.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who was a Minister at the time, was reportedly a close ally of the company and had several exchanges with key executives, including ex-CEO Travis Kalanick.
The company had also attempted to build ties with oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and even attempted to lobby current US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the investigation revealed.
Similar lobbying tactics were in India, which is a key market for Uber, The Express reports. The company courted stakeholders, including bureaucrats, politicians and civil society organisations to influence policy. It also signed MoUs in different states which mostly remained on paper.
Dodging Regulators with 'Kill Switch'
According to The Guardian, senior executives at Uber ordered the use of a “kill switch” that cuts access to Uber's servers, to prevent police and regulators from accessing data during raids on its offices in at least six countries, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Romania, and India.
This protocol was used at least 12 times.
In 2014, Uber's former Asia Head, Allen Penn, reportedly laid out the standard procedure for how the company would deal with Indian authorities by appearing cooperative, but staying tight lipped.
"...we will generally stall, be unresponsive, and often say no to what they want. This is how we operate and it’s nearly always the best. Early quick meetings set us up for failure. Get comfortable with that approach… don’t let it distract you from your mission to dominate the market,” he wrote in a letter accessed by The Indian Express.
The ICIJ investigation also reveals that Uber considered various other tactics, including 'geofencing' areas so that the app wouldn't work properly, in an effort to potentially disrupt government investigations.
‘Violence Guarantees Success’
In January 2016, there were anti-Uber protests in different parts of Europe. Some of them turned violent. In France, thousands of French taxi drivers took to the streets and violence against Uber drivers was reported.
The Uber files reveal that some executives saw this as a chance to leverage the violence against the drivers to garner public support and pressure governments to relax regulation.
“If we have 50,000 riders they won’t and can’t do anything,” wrote former chief executive Travis Kalanick, recommending "civil disobedience" as a way to counter the anti-Uber demonstrations.
“I think it’s worth it. Violence guarantee[s] success. And these guys must be resisted, no? Agreed that right place and time must be thought out.”Travis Kalanick, Ex-CEO of Uber
Following Kalakick's remarks, an Uber team in Europe reportedly prepared an action plan which included urging drivers to sign Uber-organised letters to the French president and prime minister to save their jobs.
Travis Kalanick was forced to resign in 2017 following accusations of brutal management practices and multiple instances of alleged sexual and psychological harassment at the company. He denies engaging in any illegal practices.
Uber insists that it stopped engaging in the practices detailed in the ICIJ investigation when the new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, was brought on board in 2017.
"When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally: 90 percent of current Uber employees joined after Dara became CEO," Uber said in a statement.
“We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values. 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," it added.
(With inputs from The Indian Express and The Guardian)