A Closer Look at The Guardian’s “The Uber Files”

Photo Credit: Getty

On July 11, 2022, The Guardian published an expose of rideshare giant Uber’s business practices, based on a trove of leaked documents it obtained. However, the article is filled with so many unsupported claims that I felt compelled to refute them individually.

Uber broke laws, duped police and secretly lobbied governments, leak revealsThe Guardian, July 10, 2022 by Harry Davies, Simon Goodley, Felicity Lawrence, Paul Lewis, and Lisa O’Carroll

A leaked trove of confidential files has revealed the inside story of how the tech giant Uber flouted laws, duped police, exploited violence against drivers, and secretly lobbied governments during its aggressive global expansion.

The unprecedented leak to The Guardian of more than 124,000 documents—known as the Uber files—lays bare the ethically questionable practices that fuelled the company’s transformation into one of Silicon Valley’s most famous exports.

The leak spans a five-year period when Uber was run by its co-founder Travis Kalanick, who tried to force the cab-hailing service into cities around the world, even if that meant breaching laws and taxi regulations.

During the fierce global backlash, the data shows how Uber tried to shore up support by discreetly courting prime ministers, presidents, billionaires, oligarchs, and media barons.

Leaked messages suggest Uber executives were at the same time under no illusions about the company’s law-breaking, with one executive joking they had become “pirates” and another conceding: “We’re just fucking illegal.”

From the start, the article frames the discussion with loaded language that suggests Uber engaged in shady business practices, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves.  The above passage ends with a quote that is not explained until near the end of the story, where it is revealed that The Guardian is took it out of context in this particular instance.

On Monday, Mark MacGann, Uber’s former chief lobbyist for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, came forward to identify himself as the source of the leaked data. “It is my duty to speak up and help governments and parliamentarians right some fundamental wrongs,” he said. “Morally, I had no choice in the matter.”

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 exchange, 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 shot back. “Violence guarantee[s] success.”

Once again, these quotes aren’t explained until the end of the story, where it is revealed that The Guardian appears to have taken them these quotes out of context. In context, the company was telling the drivers to peacefully stand up for their rights and not be deterred by threats.

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.

The leak also 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 extraordinary lengths to help Uber, even telling the company he had brokered a secret “deal” with its opponents in the French cabinet.

Note the absence of any context. The job of an economic minister includes addressing issues that affect the nation’s economy and to negotiate with other government officials when that serves the broader national interest. Where is the wrongdoing here?

Privately, Uber executives expressed barely disguised disdain for other elected officials who were less receptive to 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”. 

Uber executives had negative opinions about government officials who were hostile to the company’s business model. And as an insult, “comedian” seems pretty mild.

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”.

Left unsaid is that Biden’s comment has the virtue of being true. The whole point of the app-based ridesharing business model—why it took off and why it remains popular—is that it allows drivers to work as many or as fewer hours as they want, allowing them to set their own schedule.

The files cover Uber’s operations across 40 countries during a period in which the company became a global behemoth, bulldozing its cab-hailing service into many of the cities in which it still operates today.

The files cover Uber’s operations across 40 countries during a period in which the company became a global behemoth, bulldozing its cab-hailing service into many of the cities in which it still operates today.

From Moscow to Johannesburg, bankrolled with unprecedented venture capital funding, Uber heavily subsidised journeys, seducing drivers and passengers on to the app with incentives and pricing models that would not be sustainable.

In addition to more loaded language like “bulldozing ” and “seduced,” The Guardian is simply describing the age-old business strategy of underselling the competition as if it were some shocking revelation.

In a bid to quell the fierce backlash against the company and win changes to taxi and labour laws, Uber planned to spend an extraordinary $90m in 2016 on lobbying and public relations, one document suggests.

All large companies lobby. Considering how much political opposition Uber faced, it would be shocking if it didn’t hire lobbyists to protect its own interests.

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, the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, the 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 a statement, Osborne said it was the explicit policy of the government at the time to meet with global tech firms and “persuade them to invest in Britain, and create jobs here”.

While the Davos sitdown with Osborne was declared, the data reveals that six UK Tory cabinet ministers had meetings with Uber that were not disclosed. It is unclear if the meetings should have been declared, exposing confusion around how UK lobbying rules are applied.

It’s hard to see what’s newsworthy here. Uber made a point of not trying to operate under the radar and instead reached out to top government officials, who routinely meet with heads of global firms that have a significant impact on the economy.

As for the statement, “It is unclear if the meetings should have been declared, exposing confusion around how UK lobbying rules are applied,” it’s suggesting that something Illegal might have happened … or possibly not. Presumably the latter, since the story never actually points to any clear violations.

The documents indicate Uber was adept at finding unofficial routes to power, applying influence through friends or intermediaries, or seeking out encounters with politicians at which aides and officials were not present.

It enlisted the backing of powerful figures in places such as Russia, Italy, and Germany by offering them prized financial stakes in the startup and turning them into “strategic investors”.

And in a bid to shape policy debates, it paid prominent academics hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce research that supported the company’s claims about the benefits of its economic model.

This claim ignores the only relevant question: Are any of these studies fraudulent? Left unsaid is the fact that other corporations, unions, and other interested parties do the same thing. The practice of marshaling evidence that bolsters one’s own case is hardly limited to Uber.

As Uber launched across India, Kalanick’s top executive in Asia urged managers to focus on driving growth, even when “fires start to burn”. “Know this is a normal part of Uber’s business,” he said. “Embrace the chaos. It means you’re doing something meaningful.”

Kalanick appeared to put that ethos into practice in January 2016, when Uber’s attempts to upend markets in Europe led to angry protests in Belgium, Spain, Italy, and France from taxi drivers who feared for their livelihoods.

Amid taxi strikes and riots in Paris, Kalanick ordered French executives to retaliate by encouraging Uber drivers to stage a counter-protest with mass civil disobedience.

Warned that doing so risked putting Uber drivers at risk of attacks from “extreme right thugs” who had infiltrated the taxi protests and were “spoiling for a fight”, Kalanick appeared to urge his team to press ahead regardless. “I think it’s worth it,” he said. “Violence guarantee[s] success. And these guys must be resisted, no? Agreed that right place and time must be thought out.”

It’s hard to see how encouraging “civil disobedience”—that is, peaceful protesting—counts as retaliation. To the extent any retaliation was happening, it was coming from the “angry protesters” linked to traditional taxi cab industry. Uber simply encouraged drivers to stand up for their rights and not be intimidated by “extreme right thugs.” Uber isn’t responsible for the violent actions of people who not only have no ties to the company, but hate it so much they are willing to commit illegal acts against its workers. Kalanick was right that extremists must be resisted and the rights of the drivers protected.

As for Kalanick’s “success” comment, it is hard to judge precisely what he meant because The Guardian fails to provide the surrounding context. That said, he appears to be saying that if the extremists do resort to violence, that proves that the drivers have the moral high ground and will win in the end.

The decision to send Uber drivers into potentially volatile protests, despite the risks, was consistent with what one senior former executive told the Guardian was a strategy of “weaponising” drivers, and exploiting violence against them to “keep the controversy burning”. It was a playbook that, leaked emails suggest, was repeated in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

When masked men, reported to be angry taxi drivers, turned on Uber drivers with knuckle-dusters and a hammer in Amsterdam in March 2015, Uber staffers sought to turn it to their advantage to win concessions from the Dutch government.

Driver victims were encouraged to file police reports, which were shared with De Telegraaf, the leading Dutch daily newspaper. They “will be published without our fingerprint on the front page tomorrow”, one manager wrote. “We keep the violence narrative going for a few days, before we offer the solution.”

Encouraging people to report a crime is always the right thing to do. Imagine the outrage if Uber had told drivers who were the victims of violence not to report it to authorities.

Kalanick’s spokesperson questioned the authenticity of some documents. She said Kalanick “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety” and any suggestion that he was involved in such activity would be “completely false”.

Uber’s spokesperson also acknowledged past mistakes in the company’s treatment of drivers but said no one, including Kalanick, wanted violence against Uber drivers. “There is much our former CEO said nearly a decade ago that we would certainly not condone today,” she said. “But one thing we do know and feel strongly about is that no one at Uber has ever been happy about violence against a driver.”

Uber drivers were undoubtedly the target of vicious assaults and sometimes murders by furious taxi drivers. And the cab-hailing app, in some countries, found itself battling entrenched and monopolised taxi fleets with cosy relationships with city authorities. Uber often characterised its opponents in the regulated taxi markets as operating a “cartel”.

The drivers are the victims of “vicious assaults and sometimes murders.” That seems to be the real story here, and the fact that it’s glossed over should be eyebrow-raising.

However, privately, Uber executives and staffers appear to have been in little doubt about the often rogue nature of their own operation.

In internal emails, staff referred to Uber’s “other than legal status”, or other forms of active non-compliance with regulations, in countries including Turkey, South Africa, Spain, the Czech Republic, Sweden, France, Germany, and Russia.

Governments make laws and, as The Guardian itself noted, Uber often found itself “battling entrenched and monopolised taxi fleets with cosy relationships with city authorities.” Many of those entrenched interests likely lobbied governments to regulate their competition out of business. To the extent Uber was on dicey legal ground, it was due to this type of crony politics.

One senior executive wrote in an email: “We are not legal in many countries, we should avoid making antagonistic statements.” Commenting on the tactics the company was prepared to deploy to “avoid enforcement”, another executive wrote: “We have officially become pirates.”

Nairi Hourdajian, Uber’s head of global communications, put it even more bluntly in a message to a colleague in 2014, amid efforts to shut the company down in Thailand and India: “Sometimes we have problems because, well, we’re just fucking illegal.” Contacted by the Guardian, Hourdajian declined to comment.

Hourdajian’s “illegal” comment seems to refer to the political and legal battles the company was fighting with “entrenched and monopolised taxi fleets with cosy relationships with city authorities.”

Kalanick’s spokesperson accused reporters of “pressing its false agenda” that he had “directed illegal or improper conduct”.

Uber’s spokesperson said that, when it started, “ridesharing regulations did not exist anywhere in the world” and transport laws were outdated for a smartphone era.

Across the world, police, transport officials, and regulatory agencies sought to clamp down on Uber. In some cities, officials downloaded the app and hailed rides so they could crack down on unlicensed taxi journeys, fining Uber drivers and impounding their cars. Uber offices in dozens of countries were repeatedly raided by authorities.

Against this backdrop, Uber developed sophisticated methods to thwart law enforcement. One was known internally at Uber as a “kill switch”. When an Uber office was raided, executives at the company frantically sent out instructions to IT staff to cut off access to the company’s main data systems, preventing authorities from gathering evidence.

The leaked files suggest the technique, signed off by Uber’s lawyers, was deployed at least 12 times during raids in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Hungary, and Romania.

Kalanick’s spokesperson said such “kill switch” protocols were common business practice and not designed to obstruct justice. She said the protocols, which did not delete data, were vetted and approved by Uber’s legal department, and the former Uber CEO was never charged in relation to obstruction of justice or a related offence.

While the “kill switch” may seem like an unusual business practice, The Guardian doesn’t cite any law that prohibits it or any legal expert who says it is illegal or unethical, especially considering that it didn’t delete data.