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How Uber won access to world leaders, deceived investigators and exploited violence against its drivers in battle for global dominance

When the ride-hailing giant called, powerful politicians answered, leaked text messages and emails reveal.

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Image: Rocco Fazzari / ICIJ

As it grew from scrappy Silicon Valley startup to a world-conquering multi-billion dollar operation, Uber promoted itself as a leader of the digital revolution.

But the tech company pushed its agenda the old-fashioned way. Uber’s scandals and missteps in the United States, from its spying on government officials to its leaks of executive misconduct, have been the subject of books, TV series and newspaper investigations.

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Now, a new leak of records reveal the inside story of how the ride-hailing giant’s executives muscled into new markets, then managed the fallout, spending gobs of cash on a global influence machine deployed to win favors from politicians, regulators and other leaders, who were often eager to lend a hand.

The records, the Uber Files, were obtained by The Guardian newspaper and shared with ICIJ and 42 other media partners. The cache includes emails, text messages, company presentations and other documents from 2013 to 2017, when Uber was barging into cities in defiance of local laws and regulations, dodging taxes and seeking to grind into submission the taxi industry, most prominently, but also labor activists.

“Right now you are seen as aggressive,” the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, told Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, in 2016, according to meeting notes. “Change the way people look at the company” by stressing the positives, Rutte advised. “This will make you seem cuddly.”

That aggressiveness — plunging into markets without government approvals — made Uber’s drivers the target of traditional cabbies’ rage. Taxi drivers saw their business threatened by competitors who didn’t have to play by the same rules. In Europe, Asia and South America, cabbies staged protests, harassed Uber customers, beat Uber drivers and set fire to their cars.

Some Uber executives sought to spin violence to their advantage. They discussed leaking details of a near-fatal stabbing and other brutal attacks to the media hoping to draw negative attention to the taxi industry, the communications show.

Uber executives also sought to deflect inquiries about the company’s aggressive tax avoidance strategies by volunteering to help host countries collect income taxes owed by drivers, documents show.

The records include details of private exchanges and get-togethers: a U.S. ambassador chatting with an Uber investor in a Finnish sauna; a Russian oligarch entertaining company executives with a Cossack band; a company lawyer circulating a “dawn raid manual” that tells employees what to do if law enforcement officers swoop down on Uber offices to seize potential evidence of illegal conduct.

And they shed light on internal discussions among executives grappling with the fallout of Uber’s chaotic global strategy.

Mark MacGann, Uber’s chief lobbyist in Europe at the time, described Uber’s approach to entering new markets as a “sh*itstorm,” according to the documents.

“We’re just fucking illegal,” Nairi Hourdajian, then head of Uber’s global communications, wrote to a colleague amid government efforts to shut down the ride-hailing service in Thailand and India.

The Uber Files also show that the company’s use of stealth technology to thwart government investigations was far more expansive than previously reported. Company executives activated a so-called kill switch to cut access to company servers and prevent authorities from seizing evidence during raids on Uber offices in at least six countries, according to the leaked documents.

Kalanick personally ordered use of the switch as police were descending on its Amsterdam headquarters, records show. “Please hit the kill switch ASAP,” Kalanick ordered. “Access must be shut down in AMS [Amsterdam].”

David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign, and Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, now in charge of Uber Eats, were told that the company had deployed the kill switch to block investigators, text exchanges show.

To spread its message, Uber and an advisory firm compiled lists of more than 1,850 “stakeholders” — sitting and former public officials, think tanks and citizens groups — it hoped to influence in 29 countries and the European Union, the documents show.

Uber also recruited a battalion of former public officials, including many former aides to President Barack Obama. They appealed to public officials to drop probes, change policies on workers’ rights, draft new taxi laws and relax background checks on drivers.

Records show that Uber executives met with France’s Macron, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny and then-Estonia President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, among other world leaders.

In 2016, then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sought a meeting with Kalanick at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Kalanick, messages show, grew impatient when Biden ran late. “I’ve had my people let him know that every minute late he is, is one less minute he will have with me,” the then-39-year-old entrepreneur texted a colleague.

Once Biden arrived at the five-star hotel suite they’d agreed to meet at, Kalanick made his well-practiced pitch: The ride-hailing company, he said, was transforming cities and the way people work, all for the better.

Biden was so impressed, records show, that he tweaked his keynote speech, delivered later that day, to tout the company’s global impact.

In all, the new records reveal more than 100 meetings between Uber executives and public officials from 2014 to 2016, including 12 with representatives of the European Commission that haven’t been publicly disclosed.

Uber executives also courted oligarchs tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin through former U.S. and U.K. officials and struck special deals with them. Those oligarchs have since been sanctioned by Western governments in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In every market, claims that Uber was transforming the workforce were central to the company’s pitch. But some drivers say that they were misled, that Uber lured them to its platform with financial incentives that didn’t last while sharply increasing its commission from each ride. That meant drivers like 44-year-old Abdurzak Hadi of London had to work longer hours to maintain their wages.

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Hadi began driving for Uber in 2014 and found it “a joy” at first. But “the joy only lasted a very short time,” he told The Guardian.

Uber soon cut drivers’ incentives and increased its commission, meaning less money for Hadi. The Somalia-born father of three brought in about $23,000 last year after spending between 40 to 50 hours a week logged onto the Uber app — the majority of which was spent completing trips.

Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for Uber, acknowledged “mistakes” and “missteps” that culminated five years ago in “one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America.”

She said Uber completely changed how it operates in 2017 after facing high-profile lawsuits and government investigations that led to the ouster of Kalanick and other senior executives.

“When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally: 90 percent of current Uber employees joined after Dara [Khosrowshahi] became CEO” in 2017, Hazelbaker said in a written statement. “We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values.”

Hazelbaker said that Uber has not used a kill switch to thwart regulatory actions since 2017 and that Uber complies with all tax laws. She added: “No one at Uber has ever been happy about violence against a driver.”

The company dismissed any suggestion that it received special treatment from Macron or his cabinet and emphasized that no one who works at Uber today was involved in building relationships with Russian oligarchs.

Photo of Travis Kalanick
Uber founder Travis Kalanick. Image: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kalanick resigned under pressure in 2017 as investors voiced concerns about Uber’s workplace culture, including allegations of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and bullying. He remained a director until the end of 2019.

About a week after his meeting with Biden, Kalanick texted with colleagues about the possibility of organizing pro-Uber counter-demonstrations after violence by cabbies in Paris. “We will look at effective civil disobedience and at the same time keep folks safe,” MacGann wrote.

“I think it’s worth it,” Kalanick responded. “Violence guarantee[s] success. And these guys must be resisted, no?”

Devon Spurgeon, a spokeswoman for Kalanick, said the former CEO never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety or authorize “any actions or programs that would obstruct justice in any country.”

Uber, like other businesses operating outside the U.S., used technology protocols to protect intellectual property and the privacy of riders and drivers and to ensure due process of law is respected in the event of a raid, she said, adding: “These fail-safe protocols do not delete any data or information and all decisions about their use involved, were vetted by, and were approved by Uber’s legal and regulatory departments.”

Spurgeon said Kalanick did not create, direct or oversee these systems set up by legal and compliance departments.

“In pressing its false agenda that Mr. Kalanick directed illegal or improper conduct, the ICIJ claims to have documents that Mr. Kalanick was on or even authored, some of which are almost a decade old,” she added. “Tellingly, the ICIJ flatly rejected requests to review any of those documents, which further exacerbates concerns about many of the source documents’ authenticity.”

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