The Gig Economy Project looks at the key revelations from the Uber Files, a massive leak of of internal documents from the US ridehail giant uncovering the company’s true face
The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com.
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in Europe is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust.
THE International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) and 43 media partners have received access to 124,000 leaked internal files from Uber, the world’s largest ride hail platform, between 2013 to 2017. The Uber Files include WhatsApp messages, emails and iMessages between senior Uber officials, as well as other documentation like memos and invoices. You can read the full-investigation here.
The Gig Economy Project highlights five key things you need to know about the Uber Files.
- Uber are “pirates”
“Sometimes we have problems because, well, we’re just fucking illegal,” said Nairi Hourdajian, then head of Uber’s global communications, when writing to a colleague about government resistance to Uber operating without a license in Thailand and India. “We have officially become pirates,” another executive said.
Uber’s strategy for entering new markets was to do whatever it wants and worry about the legal consequences later: ‘It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission,’ as two Uber figures put it. Mark MacGann, Uber’s chief lobbyist in Europe at the time, described the strategy to one colleague as this: “basically Uber launches, and then there is a regulatory and legal sh*itstorm.”
That Uber operated in this way is not unknown to those who have followed the company’s rise closely, and especially to taxi drivers who have resisted Uber’s entry into their territory, but the Uber Files has brought it out into the open: the company knew it was acting outside of the law by refusing to follow the normal licensing process, it just believed this approach was good for business.
Perhaps even more remarkable is the evidence that the company had been operating a “kill switch” to cut access to company servers to prevent authorities from accessing documentation in raids and investigations. This kill switch was deployed at least in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Hungary and Romania, and orders for its use went right to the very top of the company.
“Please hit the kill switch ASAP,” Travis Kalanick, the former CEO, said in one message. “Access must be shut down in AMS [Amsterdam].”
“Access to IT tools was cut immediately, so the police won’t be able to get much if anything,” MacGann messaged as a police raid was ongoing in Paris.
Uber has built a global empire on what can only be described as a criminal growth strategy.
2. Uber and the political class: revolving doors
When you are creating a “regulatory and legal sh*tstorm”, inevitably there will be a backlash, and to cope with that Uber built a political lobbying and influence machine which was worth $90 million in 2016 alone. Many politicians, government and ex-government officials were only too happy to oblige.
From 2014 to 2016 Uber held 34 meetings with European Commission officials, 12 of which were undisclosed. More galling still, Neelie Kroes, ex-Dutch Transport minister and a vice president of the European Commission, appears to have breached the EU’s flimsy rules on an 18-month ‘cooling off’ period before you can lobby your ex-colleagues. Kroes left the Commission in October 2014, applied for special permission to join a paid Uber advisory board before the end of the cooling off period, was turned down, and then went on to press a Dutch minister “to force regulator and police to back off” in an investigation of Uber during the cooling off period.
Even Uber was concerned that Kroes’ activities on behalf of the company could be uncovered, with McGann stating in an e-mail just four months after Kroes had resigned from the Commission that “our relationship with NK is highly confidential,” adding: “Her name should never figure on a document.” The risk that Kroes would become “the poster child for the discussions around ‘revolving door/tech’s crony capitalism’” was discussed among executives. Naturally, Kroes went on to join Uber’s paid advisory board once the cooling-off period ended.
The most high profile case to emerge from the Uber Files is that of French President Emmanuel Macron, who as a Minister in 2015 had more than a dozen undisclosed communications with Uber, including personally intervening to revise a suspension order on Uber in Marseille after Macgann had texted him asking for help.
France has some of the most lax regulations on private hire platforms in Europe, and are frequently cited as the model by Uber and other platforms. The Uber files provides evidence as to just how that dynamic came about. A meeting between Kalanick and Macron shortly after he became a minister was described as “spectacular” by Macgann, and Macron subsequently told regulators “not be too conservative” in how they interpret taxi laws, thus opening up the door for Uber to get round French regulation.
Uber’s political influence should start a debate about democracy and corporate power in an age of mega-corporations.
3. Drivers are just pawns in Uber’s eyes
Most Uber drivers are well aware that they mean little to the company’s management, but to see the former CEO state that an Uber-orchestrated counter-protest of drivers in France against taxis would be “worth it” even if it led to physical harm for Uber’s drivers because of the PR the company could get out of it is a stunning insight into just how cynical these people really are.
“Violence guarantee[s] success,” Kalinick said.
To rub salt into the wounds, the documents also show that Uber sought to deflect government investigations into the company’s tax avoidance strategies by helping them collect income tax from Uber drivers. Uber doesn’t want to pay tax, but it wants its low paid driver’s to do so. Oh and by the way, those self-same drivers who are being directed towards dangerous protests and the tax man are also ‘self-employed’, don’t you know?
4. This isn’t all in the past
Inevitably, Uber has reacted to the mountain of shocking revelations by declaring it all to be behind the company now, as the leaks were during the rein of co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalinick, who was replaced as CEO by Dara Khosrowshahi in 2017, before Kalinick left the organisation altogether in 2019.
“We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values,” the company said.
The idea that Khosrowshahi brought in a sweeping revolution, transforming Uber into a law-abiding, tax compliant, worker-friendly paradise, may pull the wool over the eyes of some, but one only has to identify the senior figures whose finger prints are all over the Uber Files and are still at the company, even higher up the hierarchy than previously, to know that the PR spin is nonsense.
For example, Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty is now in charge of Uber Eats, the company’s food delivery section. Text exchanges from the Uber Files show that Gore-Coty was aware that the kill switch had been deployed to block government investigators. At that time he was Uber’s regional manager for western Europe, and he wrote to staff that “a very good playbook” had been devised to “fight [government] enforcement”.
“We need to monitor Heaven live every time there’s a raid planned,” Gore-Coty said, in one message.
Thibaud Simphal, who was manager of Uber France and is now global head of sustainability, was communicating with Mcgann about use of the kill switch during the Paris raid.
The sheer scale of these revelations means Uber’s PR machine will have to work overtime to get the stink off.
5. This is a watershed moment
It’s important to put the Uber Files in a broader context. Uber’s shares are down 50% in a year, as investors increasingly do not believe that the long-promised profits are around the corner. Khosrowshahi has been selling off parts of Uber’s operations and raising prices in a desperate bid for profitability, but the company is still a long way off, recording $5.9 billion in losses in the first quarter of 2022. The inflation crisis is leading to fewer drivers and even less passengers. Uber was in a desperate state before these revelations – could this be a knock-out blow?
Only time will tell, but one thing that is surely clear is that the company is going to have increasing problems in selling themselves to the public as the future of road transport. The Uber Files is a watershed moment, revealing to the world what many of those at the wrong end of the company’s rise have known for years – that Uber’s ‘disruptive’ pursuit of global domination has been legally and morally criminal.
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