A trove of documents leaked to The Guardian suggest rideshare giant Uber knowingly defied local regulations, courted powerful officials and even viewed possible violence against its drivers as political leverage during a period of rapid global expansion under co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick.
Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick leaves the Phillip Burton Federal Building on day three of the trial … [+] between Waymo and Uber Technologies on February 7, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
More than 124,000 internal Uber documents dating from 2013 to 2017 were leaked to The Guardian and shared with an international group of news outlets, the newspaper said Sunday, including straightforward communications between Kalanick and top Uber executives that illustrate how the company operated.
In internal communications, Uber staff openly acknowledged the company’s “other than legal status” in some of the countries it operated in, and Uber’s head of global communications Nairi Hourdajian wrote to a colleague in 2014 that “sometimes we have problems because, well, we’re just fucking illegal,” according to The Guardian.
When anti-Uber protests led by taxi drivers broke out in Europe in 2016, leaked correspondence shows Kalanick ordered employees to encourage Uber drivers to stage a counter-protest in France despite warnings it could put drivers at risk of attack, saying it could be “worth it” because “violence guarantee[s] success.” (Emails suggest the strategy was repeated during protests in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands, according to The Guardian.)
To help protect the startup, Uber reportedly developed what employees referred to as the “kill switch,” which would cut off data systems in case of a law enforcement raid and prevent investigators from acquiring evidence against the company.
The leak also includes messages between Kalanick and France’s then-Economy Minister and current President Emmanuel Macron, who told the company he had brokered a secret “deal” in the French cabinet to help the rideshare company gain a foothold in the French market.
Uber reportedly courted close relations with other powerful European figures, attracted support from powerful individuals in Russia, Germany and Italy by naming them “strategic investors” and offering up financial stakes, and paid well-known academics hundreds of thousands of dollars for research that backed up the company’s economic claims, according to The Guardian.
In a statement to The Guardian, Kalanick’s spokesperson denied the former Uber CEO had ever authorized any action that would “obstruct justice in any country” and said Kalanick never suggested the company should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety. “The reality was that Uber’s expansion initiatives were led by over a hundred leaders in dozens of countries around the world and at all times under the direct oversight and with the full approval of Uber’s robust legal, policy, and compliance groups,” Kalanick’s spokesperson told The Guardian. Kalanick’s team also expressed doubts about the authenticity of the documents in the leak. Forbes has reached out to Kalanick’s investment fund for comment.
Kalanick stepped down as CEO in 2017 when he was pushed out by shareholders in the wake of a scandal surrounding Uber’s work culture, after former employees detailed sexual harassment and discrimination at the company. Current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi replaced Kalanick in 2017, and since then the company has revamped the leadership team, invested heavily in safety and overhauled its corporate governance, the company said in a statement Sunday. “We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values,” Uber 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.” Kalanick left the board in 2019.
What To Watch For
More reports into what The Guardian calls the “Uber files.” The Guardian shared the leaked files and led an investigation with more than 180 journalists at 40 media outlets, including the Washington Post, the BBC and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Uber broke laws, duped police and secretly lobbied governments, leak reveals (The Guardian)
Uber Files: Massive leak reveals how top politicians secretly helped Uber (BBC)
How Uber won access to world leaders, deceived investigators and exploited violence against its drivers in battle for global dominance (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)