Uber app open in a phone with a map and a car

Leaked ‘Uber Files’ reveal company lobbied politicians and dodged laws for years

Image credit: Foto 107502484 © Piotr Adamowicz | Dreamstime.com

Thousands of leaked files have exposed how Uber courted political leaders in several countries to relax labour and taxi laws, thwart law enforcement investigations and exploited violence against drivers to support its global expansion.

An unprecedented leak of over 124,000 documents obtained by The Guardian and dubbed the "Uber Files" have shed light on the ethically questionable practices that fuelled the ride-hailing company’s global growth.

The leak spans a five-year period when Uber was run by its co-founder Travis Kalanick. The documents reveal that the company lobbied political leaders, billionaires and oligarchs and breached local laws and taxi regulations in order to take its cab-hailing service into cities around the world. 

The files include 83,000 emails and 1,000 other documents involving conversations between Kalanick and his top team of executives, as well as international lobbyists, spanning 2013 to 2017. 

The files involve top political figures such as French President Emmanuel Macron and ex-EU digital commissioner Neelie Kroes, among others, and mention meetings between Uber lobbyists and current or former ministers including Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which was granted access to the files. 

The company’s lobbyists - including former aides to then-US President Barack Obama - pressed government officials to drop investigations into the company's practices, rewrite labour and taxi laws and relax background checks on drivers, the papers suggested.

Moreover, Uber also used a “kill switch” to prevent local police agents from accessing computers and grabbing evidence during raids in at least six countries, channelled money through Bermuda and other tax havens and considered portraying violence against its drivers as a way to gain public sympathy. 

“Please hit the kill switch ASAP… Access must be shut down in AMS,” reads one of the orders issued personally by Kalanick during a police raid in Amsterdam.

While French taxi drivers protested against the company's practices, the country's current president told Uber he would reform laws in the firm's favour. According to the files, Kalanick saw the threat of violence against Uber drivers during the protests as a way to gain public support.

“Violence guarantee(s) success,” Kalanick is said to have texted colleagues.

The decision to send Uber drivers into potentially volatile protests was a strategy of “weaponising” drivers and exploiting violence against them to “keep the controversy burning”, a former Uber senior executive told The Guardian. Leaked emails suggest that the same strategy was repeated in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

In 2016, the company planned to spend an extraordinary $90m (£75m) on lobbying and public relations, according to the files. 

In the UK, the company has been found to have secretly lobbied ministers to influence London's transport policy, including then-chancellor George Osborne who was described as a "strong advocate" for Uber.

 The “undeclared” meetings took place after Boris Johnson, as Mayor of London, had promised to launch a review that could have limited Uber’s expansion in the capital and reportedly resulted in Johson's abandoning of the review, which allowed Uber to increase its number of drivers in London.

The documents suggest Uber executives were aware of the company’s law-breaking activities, with one executive joking they had become “pirates” and another conceding, “We’re just fucking illegal.”

In response to the investigation, Uber has acknowledged "mistakes" and stated that its "past behaviour wasn't in line with present values" and that it is a "different company" today.

The company forced its co-founder Travis Kalanick out in 2017, due to the large amounts of controversies it faced regarding its practices, from allegations of sexual harassment to data breach scandals.

Uber says his replacement, Dara Khosrowshahi, was "tasked with transforming every aspect of how Uber operates" and has "installed the rigorous controls and compliance necessary to operate as a public company".

A spokesperson for Kalanick said he never authorised any actions or programmes that would obstruct justice in any country and any accusation he did is completely false. 

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