5 takeaways from “Uber Files” investigation into company’s influence-peddling

A new leak of more than 100,000 records shows that ride hailing giant Uber used stealth technology to ward off regulators and lobbied political leaders around the world to help the startup undermine worker rights, avoid taxes and expand its global footprint. 

The bombshell Uber Files investigation is based on a trove of texts, emails, invoices and other confidential documents from 2013-2017 that were leaked to The Guardian newspaper by an anonymous source. 

The Guardian then shared the documents with the nonprofit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a network of Washington, D.C.-based journalists and other media partners which led the investigation with the Guardian. 

Here are five key takeaways from the probe. 

Former CEO was encouraged by violence

Disgruntled French taxi drivers led violent anti-Uber protests in Paris after Uber first launched in the City of Light in 2011, with drivers fearing the startup would threaten their livelihoods. 

The consortium reported that then-CEO Travis Kalanick viewed possible violence against Uber drivers as positive from a public relations viewpoint. 

“Violence guarantee(s) success,″ Kalanick texted colleagues at the time. 

Devon Spurgeon, a spokesperson for Kalanick, told the consortium the former CEO “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety.”

Uber used stealth tech to thwart regulators

The investigation also found that Uber used “stealth technology″ to fend off government investigations.

For example, Uber had at its disposal a “kill switch” that blocked authorities’ access to Uber servers in a number of countries and prevented them from seizing documents during raids of company offices. 

Uber could also identify police and government officials who sought to order cars through the app to obtain information. Uber had the ability to show them an imitation version of the app with fake vehicles that could be summoned but never arrived.

Uber said it no longer uses technology to thwart law enforcement. 

Lobbying politicians to influence legislation

In 2015, taxi drivers in Marseille, France, violently protested Uber. As a result of repeated clashes between taxi drivers and Uber workers, French authorities partially suspended Uber’s most popular service. 

Uber at the time sought help from then-French minister Emmanuel Macron to have Uber reinstated, and Uber lobbyist Mark MacGann exchanged texts with Macron.

“Could you ask your cabinet to help us to understand what is going on? Respectfully. Mark,” MacGann texted, according to the report.

Macron replied: “I’ll look into this personally. Send me all the facts and we’ll decide by tonight. Let’s stay calm at this stage, I trust you.”

Authorities later revised the suspension order, according to the report.

Tax avoidance

Uber avoided paying millions of dollars in tax by channeling money through Bermuda and other tax havens, according to the Uber Files. 

It then “sought to deflect attention from its tax liabilities by helping authorities collect taxes from its drivers,” the report found.

Uber risked drivers’ lives in South Africa expansion

After Uber drivers in South Africa were given permission to accept cash, gangs started hailing rides to rob drivers. 

In August 2019, two gang members attacked and killed an Uber driver, according to prosecutors. Other drivers in the country were burned to death. 

Kalanick viewed the violence against drivers as a business opportunity, taking no responsibility for the attacks, according to the leaked files.

Uber responds: Look forward, not back

MacGann, the lobbyist, came forward as the source of the leak, telling the Guardian and the Washington Post that he regretted his role in Uber’s expansion.

“I was the one telling people that they should change the rules because drivers were going to benefit and people were going to get so much economic opportunity,” he said. “When that turned out not to be the case — we had actually sold people a lie — how can you have a clear conscience if you don’t stand up and own your contribution to how people are being treated today?” 

In a statement to the Guardian, Uber said it made “mistakes and missteps,” but argued the company changed since 2017 after Dara Khosrowshahi came on as CEO.

“Five years ago, those mistakes culminated in one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America. That reckoning led to an enormous amount of public scrutiny, a number of high-profile lawsuits, multiple government investigations, and the termination of several senior executives,” the statement said.

“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.”

The statement also said that MacGann, who left the company in 2016 and recently settled litigation with Uber over a bonus he said he was owed, was in no position to judge Uber’s role today.

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