Jul 10, 2022 - Technology

Leaked Uber files detail how politicians helped ride-sharing giant's global rise

Pedestrians walk past a signage displayed outside Uber Technologies headquarters on August 10, 2020 in San Francisco, California.

Photo: Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images

Uber allegedly attempted to lobby politicians, including Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron, to help the ride-sharing service in its "bare-knuckled global expansion" from 2013 to 2017, according to a joint media investigation published Sunday.

Why it matters: Uber's history of challenging or ignoring local laws and regulations has long been a matter of record. But these revelations, outlined in the Guardian-led probe, shared with nonprofit the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and outlets including the Washington Post, add new details and help fill out the portrait.

For the record: Uber spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker acknowledged in a statement "mistakes" had previously been made, but added the company had transformed under the leadership of Dara Khosrowshahi, who became CEO in 2017.

By the numbers: Investigative journalists analyzed 124,000 leaked records for "the Uber Files," including more than 100 meetings between the San Francisco-based firm's executives and public officials from 2014 to 2016.

Zoom in: Then-Vice President Biden appears to have "tweaked" a 2016 Davos speech following a meeting with Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO at the time. The speech praised the firm for enabling workers the "freedom to work as many hours as they wish, manage their own lives as they wish," according to the report.

  • An Uber lobbyist described President Macron as a "true ally" for his relationship with the company when he was economy minister from 2014-16 — including striking a deal with lawmakers in the French cabinet who were opposed to the firm.
  • Macron also allegedly promised to intervene after a French official banned Uber in Marseille in a text message, stating, "I will look at this personally. At this point, let’s stay calm."

The big picture: The investigation builds on earlier allegations against Uber, such as its use of technology to thwart police raids, citing correspondence identified as being from Kalanick during a police raid in Amsterdam stating: "Please hit the kill switch ASAP ... Access must be shut down in AMS (Amsterdam)."

  • It also outlines how some Uber executives "sought to spin" reports of violence against drivers to the company's advantage in the media and adds more details on the company's channeling of money through tax havens, including Bermuda.
  • And it alleges that Uber executives "courted oligarchs tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin," who've since been sanctioned due to the Ukraine invasion, "through former U.S. and U.K. officials and struck special deals with them."

What they're saying: In its statement, Uber outlined a series of reforms implemented under Khosrowshahi, including in regards to safety.

  • "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."
  • Devon Spurgeon, a spokesperson for Kalanick, said in a statement he "never authorized any actions or programs that would obstruct justice in any country," including Russia where he "had very limited involvement in those expansion plans."
"Mr. Kalanick never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety. Any accusation that Mr. Kalanick directed, engaged in, or was involved in any of these activities is completely false."
Excerpt from statement by former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's spokesperson

Meanwhile, the French president’s office didn't directly comment on Macron's relationship with Uber when requested by ICIJ partner Le Monde, but said he met with many representatives of companies facing regulatory obstacles in the service sector.

  • Representatives for Biden did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.
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