Uber Files: The disturbing secrets of the company that declared war on taxis
On Sunday, a consortium of newspapers published Uber Files, an investigation based on over 120,000 internal and confidential documents of the American company.
Yesterday the British newspaper The Guardian , in concert with an international consortium of newspapers and journalists, published an investigation with the eloquent title ” The Uber Files “.
The investigation reveals some inconvenient truths about the startup that revolutionized the world of mobility, declaring war on the monopoly of taxi drivers. Reporters got their hands on a large number of files, information and private conversations from Uber executives . The portrait that emerges is disturbing, in many ways.
For example, the conversations obtained by journalists highlight the unscrupulous style of the company’s executives, starting with Travis Kalanick , who was the founder of Uber and, until 2019, the CEO. “We are a fucking illegal ‘company ,” Nairi Hourdajian, who was Uber’s global communications manager at the time, wrote with some pride in 2014.
Overall, the Uber Files investigation is based on a total of more than 124,000 Uber confidential documents, all produced between 2013 and 2017, the years of Uber’s rise. In the meantime, a lot has changed: Kalanick is no longer the CEO of Uber and the company now seems interested in maintaining a more institutional profile, abandoning the idea of defying laws and governments and giving up many of its more visionary or extravagant ambitions. (such as autonomous driving and flying taxis).
Money for politics, journalists and researchers
Uber, the investigation shows, on the one hand would have knowingly challenged the rules in force, often expanding into gray areas of the law, in order to quickly expand its services and put a spanner in the works for taxi drivers. On the other hand, the company has invested heavily to build solid relationships with politics, so that it turns a blind eye to its unscrupulous style, or even openly promotes it as a positive example of innovation.
In the Uber Files one name emerges above all, namely that of the current French president Emmanuel Macron . Travis Kalanick had managed to establish a relationship of extreme confidence with the politician, to the point that the two called each other by name. In some messages dating back to 2014, Macron allegedly vouched for Uber, promising that he would change the laws to favor the company and its interests.
Often the friendships with the exponents of politics were ‘bought’ with the sound of substantial funding for their electoral campaigns. The same modus operandi would be replicated in 40 countries, including Italy, France, Germany and Russia.
Still with the aim of gaining public opinion, Kalanick would also have allocated a large portion of Uber’s budget to some researchers and scientists, so that they could produce studies that positively portray Uber’s role – among the other things – in the fight against pollution or in the reduction of urban traffic.
According to the investigation published by the Guardian, between 2013 and 2017 Uber would have spent at least 90 million euros on lobbying campaigns to curry favor with political parties and governments.
According to the weekly L’Espresso, in Italy Uber would have used the American ambassador John Phillips to approach the then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
As for Italy, it is Espresso that unveils the strategies of the American giant adopted to conquer politics. “Italy – Operation Renzi”, the attempt to influence the then prime minister of Italy was called internally, who was defined by Uber’s managers as “an enthusiastic supporter of Uber”.
Uber would have tried to approach Matteo Renzi also through John Phillips, who at the time was the United States ambassador to Italy. The former prime minister denies direct involvement, explaining that he never personally followed the issue of taxis and their liberalization. “Things that were handled at the ministerial level, not by the prime minister,” Renzi told L’Espresso.
The button to delete and hide files during police searches
Among the various revelations of the investigation, a ploy is also mentioned to conceal potentially compromising information from law enforcement agencies. Uber’s computer systems were equipped with a ‘kill switch’, a kind of self-destruct button. It basically made all computers in a given office inaccessible in the event of a search by the authorities. The emergency switch would have been activated on at least six different occasions: in Amsterdam, in 2015, but also in France, India and Canada.
Travis Kalanick, who currently no longer holds positions within Uber, despite being a partner, denied ever having ordered such a gimmick to circumvent controls. Through his lawyers, he stated that the email obtained by the reporters may have been forged by some rival managers, in an attempt to discredit him.
“Better to apologize later than to ask permission first.” For many years Uber has expanded its empire by systematically violating the laws of the countries where it operated
From the conversations of the managers, it emerges that Uber was well aware of systematically violating the laws of some of the countries where it operated. In a sense, it was the trademark of the American multinational. “Better to apologize than to ask for permission”, reads a note from an executive. But also: “First we start with the activity, then we wait for the storm of shit, the rules and controls of the authorities and see what to do”.
Among other things, Kalanick’s messages also seem to describe a certain enthusiasm for the violent protests of taxi drivers, seen as an own goal of the category that would have favored the rise of Uber and approval by the public. For example, between 2015 and 2016 Kalanick allegedly ordered a counter-demonstration by Uber drivers, with the aim of responding to similar demonstrations by taxi drivers demanding that the American company be declared illegal. The initiative would have been ordered in the hope that taxi drivers physically assault Uber drivers. “Violence is a guarantee of success,” Kalanick said in response to those who pointed out the risk of an escalation. Lawyers for the former CEO have questioned the authenticity of this message as well.
Ultimately, the investigation also puts the magnifying glass on the complicated financial health of the multinational, which would have operated for many years without producing a single penny of profit. As already imagined, Uber has gnawed market space for taxi drivers thanks to dumping: that is, by proposing prices for hyper-competitive rides, which were made possible exclusively thanks to the continuous rain of funds from the banks and investment funds that had chosen to believe in the project. An extremely common strategy replicated by numerous other American giants: first I kick you out of the market with bargain prices, then, once I’m monopolist, I pump the rates again by plucking consumers. A goal, the latter, still very far away.
Uber closed a positive quarter for the first time only towards the end of 2021. Not thanks to the chauffeured races, but to its other business: Uber Eats, the rival of Deliveroo and Glovo. Moreover, it would be an objective achieved exclusively thanks to a certain ‘accounting creativity’ .