Uber lobbied officials to drop investigations, used a “kill switch” to thwart law enforcement and considered exploiting violence against its drivers to gain public sympathy as it aggressively expanded into global markets, according to analysis of a leaked batch of confidential documents.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) scoured more than 124,000 documents – including texts, emails and invoices – to expose the “ethically questionable practices that fuelled the ride-hailing company’s transformation,” according to the Guardian.
The British newspaper first leaked the files and went on to share them with the the ICIJ, a non-profit global network of investigative reporters.
In a written statement, Uber spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker acknowledged “mistakes” in the past and said CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, hired in 2017, had been “tasked with transforming every aspect of how Uber operates”.
“When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally: 90% of current Uber employees joined after Dara became CEO,” Ms Hazelbaker said.
Founded in 2009, Uber sought to skirt taxi regulations and offer inexpensive transportation via a ride-sharing app, according to the consortium’s report dubbed the “Uber Files”.
The report reveals the extraordinary lengths that the company undertook to establish itself in nearly 30 countries, becoming one of Silicon Valley’s most familiar exports.
The company’s lobbyists – including former aides to President Barack Obama – sought to persuade government officials to drop their investigations into the company, rewrite labour and taxi laws and relax background checks on drivers, the papers show.
‘Kill switch’ cut access to Uber servers
The investigation found that Uber used “stealth technology” to fend off government investigations.
The company, for example, used a “kill switch” that cut access to Uber servers and blocked authorities from grabbing evidence during raids in at least six countries.
The Uber Files team reported that during a police raid in Amsterdam former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick personally issued an order: “Please hit the kill switch ASAP … Access must be shut down in AMS (Amsterdam).”
Mr Kalanick saw the threat of violence against Uber drivers in France by aggrieved taxi drivers as a way to gain public support, according to the consortium. “Violence guarantee(s) success,” Mr Kalanick texted colleagues.
Company cut tax bill by sending profits through tax havens
Responding to the investigation, a spokesman for Mr Kalanick, Devon Spurgeon, said the former CEO “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety”.
The tech giant was also able to cut its tax bill by millions of dollars by sending profits through Bermuda and other tax havens, then “sought to deflect attention from its tax liabilities by helping authorities collect taxes from its drivers”, the reporting team said.
Guardian journalists claim then French economy minister Emmanuel Macron, now French President, went to “extraordinary lengths” to help Uber disrupt France’s closed-shop taxi industry.
In a statement, the Élysée said Mr Macron’s ministerial duties at the time “naturally led him to meet and interact with many companies engaged in the sharp shift which came out during those years in the service sector”.