A massive leak of over 124,000 confidential documents to the Guardian reveals the company massaged world leaders, cheered when drivers were potential in harms way and developed a “kill switch” to circumvent investigations into its crooked dealings.
The leaked documents are from a five-year period between 2013 to 2017 when Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick was still at the helm. We’ve always known Uber was a crooked company with weirdly supervillain tendencies, but this report in the Guardian is so jaw-dropping that you should probably just head over there and read it in its entirety. There are plenty of horrifying nuggets to chew on, like when Uber actively sought to use violence against drivers to its advantage:
Amid taxi strikes and riots in Paris, Kalanick ordered French executives to retaliate by encouraging Uber drivers to stage a counter-protest with mass civil disobedience.
Warned that doing so risked putting Uber drivers at risk of attacks from “extreme right thugs” who had infiltrated the taxi protests and were “spoiling for a fight”, Kalanick appeared to urge his team to press ahead regardless. “I think it’s worth it,” he said. “Violence guarantee[s] success. And these guys must be resisted, no? Agreed that right place and time must be thought out.”
When masked men, reported to be angry taxi drivers, turned on Uber drivers with knuckle-dusters and a hammer in Amsterdam in March 2015, Uber staffers sought to turn it to their advantage to win concessions from the Dutch government.
Driver victims were encouraged to file police reports, which were shared with De Telegraaf, the leading Dutch daily newspaper. They “will be published without our fingerprint on the front page tomorrow”, one manager wrote. “We keep the violence narrative going for a few days, before we offer the solution.”
That’s pretty chilling, to use people you don’t even claim as actual employees to fight in the streets with fascist for your brand. It was these kinds of Uber executives who had inside access to some of the most powerful people in the world, everyone from world leaders to media moguls to billionaires:
Privately, Uber executives expressed barely disguised disdain for other elected officials who were less receptive to the company’s business model. After the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who was mayor of Hamburg at the time, pushed back against Uber lobbyists and insisted on paying drivers a minimum wage, an executive told colleagues he was “a real comedian”.
When the then US vice-president, Joe Biden, a supporter of Uber at the time, was late to a meeting with the company at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Kalanick texted a colleague: “I’ve had my people let him know that every minute late he is, is one less minute he will have with me.”
After meeting Kalanick, Biden appears to have amended his prepared speech at Davos to refer to a CEO whose company would give millions of workers “freedom to work as many hours as they wish, manage their own lives as they wish”.
The documents indicate Uber was adept at finding unofficial routes to power, applying influence through friends or intermediaries, or seeking out encounters with politicians at which aides and officials were not present.
It enlisted the backing of powerful figures in places such as Russia, Italy and Germany by offering them prized financial stakes in the startup and turning them into “strategic investors”.
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And then there’s the “Kill Switch,” which sounds illegal as hell, though the company insists it’s a common tool in business, much like the previously reported Greyball program used by the company:
Nairi Hourdajian, Uber’s head of global communications, put it even more bluntly in a message to a colleague in 2014, amid efforts to shut the company down in Thailand and India: “Sometimes we have problems because, well, we’re just fucking illegal.” Contacted by the Guardian, Hourdajian declined to comment.
Across the world, police, transport officials and regulatory agencies sought to clamp down on Uber. In some cities, officials downloaded the app and hailed rides so they could crack down on unlicensed taxi journeys, fining Uber drivers and impounding their cars. Uber offices in dozens of countries were repeatedly raided by authorities.
Against this backdrop, Uber developed sophisticated methods to thwart law enforcement. One was known internally at Uber as a “kill switch”. 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 leaked files suggest the technique, signed off by Uber’s lawyers, was deployed at least 12 times during raids in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Hungary and Romania.
It only gets more bananas from there. Uber has had a string of bad press along with its unlikely success (Uber is worth $43 billion and operates in over 80 countries as of this writing). But it was Uber’s inadequate safety measures in its self-driving car test vehicle that led to the death of a woman in 2018. The company has spied on journalists, drivers and anyone working for the competition and they’ve done it mostly on the government’s dime.
This latest blip of bad publicity will likely change nothing about how the ride-hailing giant operates, but it’s worth reading the whole story before you hit that U on your phone.