Like Facebook before it, Uber is dealing with the public relations fallout following the leak of thousands of confidential documents. And it’s not painting a pretty picture of the company’s early days.
The data dump, comprising over 124,000 confidential documents shared with The Guardian, focuses primarily on the 2014-2016 time frame, when cofounder Travis Kalanick was in charge. (He was ousted from the CEO role in 2017 following protests for his participation on Trump’s economic council, multimillion-dollar FTC fines, and accusations of rampant sexism in the company. By the end of 2020, he had stepped down from the company’s board and sold all his shares.)
Kalanick’s reign as CEO already included plenty of controversy, including a program that deceived government officials (via a tool that showed a fake version of the app that would deny them a ride) and a videoed argument with an Uber driver over plans to lower fares. But the revelations in the leaked documents show those incidents might have been just the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s a look at some of the biggest disclosures in the documents. And more could follow as they’re parsed further, by outlets such as The Guardian and The Washington Post:
Uber reached out to Russian oligarchs as it expanded into the country
Getting a foot in the door of the Russian market is hard for any company, much less a start-up. To ease things, Uber reportedly attempted to get in touch with oligarchs in hopes of having a communications channel to Vladimir Putin. Investors Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven bought a $200 million stake in the company in 2016, via a private investment firm. And Uber allegedly offered a $50 million sweetener that wasn’t announced.
The efforts didn’t help. Uber never became a market force in Russia. And Fridman and Aven are both currently subject to sanctions after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Violence guarantees success”
France was another tough market for Uber to break into, due to its entrenched taxi industry. In the early days, there were plenty of protests and Kalanick reportedly suggested a “civil disobedience” event with 15,000 drivers.
“I think it’s worth it. Violence guarantee[s] success,” he reportedly wrote. “And these guys must be resisted, no? Agreed that right place and time must be thought out.”
The company is also accused of leveraging over 80 physical attacks against its drivers as a way to win public sympathy and put political pressure on opponents in the French government.
The company made good use of its reported “kill switch”
Uber was known to have had a method to instantly kill access to its technology that would prevent law enforcement officials from gathering evidence against it. The files show it was reportedly deployed on 12 occasions in six countries: France, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Hungary, and Romania. During one raid in the Paris office, computer screens went blank when officers entered the premises.
The use of the switch could make Uber vulnerable to charges of obstructing justice.
Uber leveraged a powerful French connection
Company officials had multiple undisclosed meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron, who was economy minister at the time. That reportedly made it easier for Uber to operate in the country. When police raided the Paris office, chief lobbyist Mark McGann (who has publicly identified himself as the source of the Uber Files) reportedly told staff that he had “asked Macron to get them to back off.”
The disclosure has led to calls for a parliamentary inquiry into Macron’s role in assisting Uber.
Driver safety was secondary to growth in some areas
Uber knew its drivers in South Africa faced dangers for very little money, but it nonetheless actively recruited them, using subsidies as a lure. But the pace of that recruiting never let up, forcing drivers to work much longer hours and drive in much more dangerous neighborhoods in hopes of making what they used to. The company also let passengers begin paying in cash, which raised the threat of robberies and attacks.
Some drivers made less than the minimum wage of $1.40 per hour after paying Uber’s share and gas fees.
Uber enlisted academics to aid its lobbying
As Uber faced difficulty with enforcement officials in Germany and France, it paid high-profile and respected people in the academic world in both the U.S. and Europe to write reports that showed the company’s entry into the market as a positive, which could be used to persuade officials to view it more favorably.
With commissions ranging from €10,000 to €100,000, the company was able to frame at least one academic study and control what data was shared.
Officials tried to lure media as “strategic investors”
Uber didn’t only try to get politicians on its side. The company also invited owners of several major media organizations to become “strategic investors,” hoping that would open doors for them. In Germany, the company convinced the parent company of Bild, a popular tabloid, to invest, reportedly hoping to use that as a backchannel to Angela Merkel. Kalanick was later interviewed onstage during a high-profile conference by Bild’s publisher, which was widely covered by other outlets.
Kalanick wasn’t a fan of Joe Biden
Kalanick was scheduled to meet with Joe Biden at the World Economic Forum at Davos, but the then-vice president was running late, something that’s not unusual for a high-ranking politician. Kalanick wasn’t putting up with the perceived snub, though, sending a text message to a colleague reading “I’ve had my people let him know that every minute late he is, is one less minute he will have with me.”