Uber files: Leaks reveal how taxi-hiring service broke laws, lobbied governments
Leaked files reveal that the woman’s rape in Delhi in an Uber cab in 2014 did ring alarm bells in the firm’s headquarters and Uber immediately took the line that 'flawed’ Indian system was responsible
US-based taxi hiring service Uber broke laws and lobbied governments as part of its global expansion, investigations by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) have revealed. Over 1.24 lakh files were leaked to The Guardian and the publication shared it with ICIJ.
Investigation of the leaked files revealed that the rape of a woman in Delhi in an Uber cab in 2014 did ring alarm bells in the Uber headquarters in San Francisco.
The Indian Express, an ICIJ partner, reported that the company immediately took the line that it was the ‘flawed’ Indian system of background checks of drivers that led to the accused, Shiv Kumar Yadav, committing a second sexual harassment offence.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Uber said in a statement it will not make excuses for the past but wanted to be judged by its actions in the last five years.
Embracing the chaos
As per Indian Express, less than a year into its launch in India, Uber’s then Asia Head, Allen Penn, on August 23, 2014, sent an email to the team: “Embrace the chaos. It means you are doing something meaningful.”
The Uber files show that a few months later, in the aftermath of an allegation of rape by an Uber driver in New Delhi in December 2014, the company executives, while officially expressing shock and empathy, tried to craft the narrative that government officials had carried out ‘faulty background checks’ on drivers.
As per Financial Express, Mark MacGann, then Uber’s Head of Public Policy for Europe and Middle East, wrote on December 8: “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… the view in the US is that we can expect inquiries across our markets on the issue of background checks, in the light of what has happened in India.’’
Niall Wass, then Uber’s Senior vice-president for Europe, Middle East and Africa, wrote on December 9: “We had done what was required in terms of the Indian regulations. However, it’s clear the checks required for a driver to obtain a commercial license from the authorities now appears to be insufficient as it appears the accused also had some previous rape allegations, which the Delhi police check did not identify (in what’s called a ‘character certificate.’).”
Shortly after the incident, MacGann sent a mail to his team stating that it was not the company, but the Indian system that was responsible. He 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).”
Uber’s services were banned in Delhi following the rape incident in 2014. The services resumed after seven months following legal intervention.
Using stealth technology
The ICIJ’s investigation revealed how Uber stormed into markets around the world, how it used stealth technology and evasive practices to thwart regulators and law enforcement in at least six countries and how it deployed a phalanx of lobbyists to court prominent world leaders to influence legislation and help it avoid taxes.
The Guardian reported that Uber developed sophisticated methods like ‘kill switch’ to thwart law enforcement. 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 publication reported.
The technique was deployed at least 12 times during raids in France, Netherlands, Belgium, India, Hungary and Romania.
Kalanick’s aggressive tactics
Leaked communications reveal that founder Travis Kalanick — who helmed Uber when it was the world’s most valuable start-up — personally directed the use of aggressive tactics during the company’s international expansion. They show that Kalanick viewed the possibility of violence against Uber drivers in France as an opportunity to build public support, and he personally ordered the use of the kill switch during a raid in Amsterdam. At times, the kill switch was employed during raids, as police searched for evidence.
“Violence guarantee(s) success,” Kalanick messaged other company leaders as he pushed for a counter protest amid sometimes heated demonstrations in Paris in 2016 against Uber’s arrival in the market.
Kalanick was forced to resign in 2017 following accusations of brutal management practices and multiple episodes of sexual and psychological harassment at the company.
Kalanick spokesperson Devon Spurgeon said the former chief executive “never authorized any actions or programs that would obstruct justice in any country.” He “did not create, direct or oversee these systems set up by legal and compliance departments and has never been charged in any jurisdiction for obstruction of justice or any related offense,” she said.
To spread its message, Uber with the help of an advisory firm compiled lists of more than 1,850 “stakeholders,” sitting and former public officials, think tanks and citizens groups, it intended to influence in 29 countries as well as European Union institutions, the documents show.
Lobbying with world leaders
Company executives had private meetings with at least 6 world leaders, one vice president and three deputy prime ministers, including then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In all, the new records reveal more than 100 meetings between Uber executives and public officials from 2014 to 2016, including 12 with representatives of the European Commission that haven’t been publicly disclosed.
The reports say the Uber, in particular, found an ally in France’s Emmanuel Macron, who was economy minister from 2014 to 2016 and is now the country’s president. Macron was an open supporter of Uber and the idea of turning France into a “start-up nation” in general, but the leaked documents suggest that the minister’s support even sometimes clashed with the leftist government’s policies.
In its latest statement, Uber said those “mistakes” five years ago culminated in the termination of several senior executives. “It’s also exactly why Uber hired a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who was tasked with transforming every aspect of how Uber operates,” it said.
“Dara rewrote the company’s values, revamped the leadership team, made safety a top company priority, implemented best-in-class corporate governance, hired an independent board chair, and installed the rigorous controls and compliance necessary to operate as a public company,” the statement said. Uber, it said, “is a different company today.”