‘Sometimes we have problems because, well, we’re just fucking illegal.’ Those were the words of Nairi Hourdajian, Uber’s head of global communications, in a message sent to a colleague in 2014 as the company was facing the prospect of being shut down in Thailand and India.
Revealed as part of a trove of more than 124,000 leaked documents and correspondences from 2013 to 2017, dubbed the ‘Uber Files’, the admission gets to the core of how Uber became the globe-spanning transportation company it is today: by breaking laws, evading authorities, cultivating connections with powerful people, and putting its drivers on the frontline of the backlash. The documents provide new details on aspects of the company that have come to light in recent years.
The Uber Files show how the company recognised it needed to get close to politicians to ensure it wasn’t regulated out of existence. David Plouffe and Jim Messina used connections and goodwill from their time in the Obama administration to help Uber expand across Europe and the Middle East, including getting US diplomats in France and the Netherlands to intervene on the company’s behalf. Uber also developed close relationships with former British chancellor George Osborne, French president Emmanuel Macron when he was economy minister, former European Commission vice president Neelie Kroes, and Toronto mayor John Tory, just to name a few.
The company developed a ‘kill switch’ that would remotely encrypt its computers and devices if an office was raided by authorities, used at least two dozen times in jurisdictions that include Canada, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Romania, and Hong Kong. It lobbied governments to ensure regulatory efforts would treat it as a technology company instead of a transportation company, and was happy to put drivers in harm’s way when it benefited the company. ‘Violence guarantee[s] success,’ said CEO Travis Kalanick after some executives expressed reservations about a plan to send drivers to a 2016 protest in Paris where they could be attacked.
These stories are just the tip of the iceberg, as the files have been shared with forty media outlets which are expected to keep publishing in the coming days. Uber is already trying to get ahead of the bad press, repetitional hit, and possible regulatory action: in a statement, the company points to the many revelations that have already been made about how it operated under Kalanick’s leadership, and tries to make it seem as though the bad actions being documented are from a period in the company’s history that’s long passed. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Uber Sold Us a Lie
In the early years of the 2010s, Uber was ascendant and much of the media couldn’t get enough of it. The company was showered with positive press that ignored the already obvious ways it was harming workers and communities for its own benefit. That allowed Kalanick to make a whole range of bold claims that made Uber sound not only like it was going to be great for us, but that technology was delivering a better future.
As I outline in Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, Uber was supposed to reduce car ownership, cut traffic congestion, make mobility more accessible for underserved communities, allow its drivers to make a good living, and be complimentary toward transit services—or so Kalanick claimed. It only took a few years for all the big promises to be revealed as overly ambitious at best or outright lies at worst.
Uber’s real impact has been to make life worse for virtually everyone it touches. A series of studies have found the company made traffic worse in major cities, did little to affect car ownership, took passengers away from transit services, and increased trip emissions. Meanwhile, it decimated the conditions of existing taxi workers and squeezed its own drivers (who mainly hailed from marginalised communities) to disproportionately serve affluent young people living in cities.
The big promises and uncritical coverage served as a cover for the company’s real project: to deregulate the taxi industry, chip away at the rights of workers, and increase corporate control over how people get around. In short, it succeeded where a 1990s campaign funded by the Koch brothers had failed. The real benefits accrued not to the public whose streets were flooded with unregulated taxis or workers whose livelihoods evaporated, but to Uber’s early investors who were still able to cash out when the company went public and to other companies dubbed ‘Uber for X’ that were able to spread its piece-work labour model to other sectors.
The Uber Files flesh out the details of how the company was able to become what it is today, building on years of journalism revealing everything from rampant sexism to its creation of tools like Greyball to throw off regulators and law enforcement. The company’s story is outlined in detail in Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. Yet the company would have us believe that all changed after Kalanick left the building.
Uber Hasn’t Changed
When Dara Khosrowshahi became CEO in August 2017, the company framed its problem as having a bad corporate ‘culture’ and promised that Khosrowshahi was going to clean it up. But while management’s treatment of women and other marginalised groups at its headquarters was a problem, the rot went to the very core of its business model—and that was something Khosrowshahi couldn’t (and wouldn’t) change.
The most important campaign that Khosrowshahi has undertaken since taking over Uber has not been to clean up the company’s ‘frat house’ culture, but to overturn the rights of workers in California. In September 2019, the state passed Assembly Bill 5, which would have forced gig companies like Uber to reclassify their workers as employees instead of independent contractors. However, the companies teamed up and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to mislead the public into voting for a ballot measure called Proposition 22 that they claimed would improve the conditions of workers, but in fact did the exact opposite by denying them employment status.
The Uber Files are not so much about Uber’s internal culture as they are about the way the company cemented itself in cities around the world through the ruthless pursuit of political connections and favourable regulation at virtually any cost. Despite the claims of Uber’s public relations team that it’s changed since the period covered by the leaked documents, its ongoing campaign to have its misclassification of workers written into law shows the exact opposite.
Emboldened in the aftermath of Prop 22, Khosrowshahi rolled out plans to vigorously campaign for a labour classification it called ‘IC+’ or ‘independent contractor plus’. Under the plan, workers would be considered independent contractors, denying them all the rights and benefits that come with employment status. But the company promised they would get a few protections, including a minimum wage for ‘engaged time’ and some limited benefits. However, the experience of Prop 22 had already showed them to be false promises: few workers could access the meagre benefits and the promised minimum wage amounted to just $5.64 an hour.
Uber planned to roll its framework out across the United States and around the world. In Massachusetts, its plan for a ballot measure has recently hit a roadblock in the form of the state’s top court, but the company has been more successful in Washington. In Canada, Uber branded IC+ as ‘Flexible Work+’ and has been lobbying provinces across the country to change their labour laws. Ontario’s recent gig work law closely mirrors what Uber has been pushing for.
Meanwhile, a UK Supreme Court decision last year found that Uber drivers should be classified as workers and receive the associated rights and benefits. The ruling was celebrated as a step forward for workers, and Uber used it as a key piece of its PR campaign to make people believe it treats workers fairly. But Uber never actually complied with the full decision, which said that workers should be guaranteed a minimum wage for the entire time they’re working—from log on to log off. Instead, Uber only gives it for ‘engaged’ time, or when they’re providing a ride.
The Uber Files also show how the company cultivated important relationships, regardless of their consequences. In Canada’s federal election last year, the Conservative Party released a gig work plan that was described as a ‘carbon copy’ of Uber’s Flexible Work+ proposal. It turned out an Uber lobbyist was the party’s policy director and played a lead role in putting together the platform. Luckily, the party lost the election, but Khosrowshahi has done far worse than that.
In 2019, after there was conclusive evidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had ordered the execution and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Khosrowshahi still wasn’t ready to distance himself from the murderous dictator. Speaking to Axios, he described the order as a ‘mistake’, and said that ‘people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven’. The next day, the PR team had to clean up the mess he made in trying not to offend one of the company’s major shareholders.
Uber Must Be Stopped
Counter to what Uber wants the public to believe, it has not changed. It’s still aggressively committed to controlling how people get around and decimating the rights of workers in the process—both for the benefit of its shareholders and any company trying to pass off the fiction that using an app should allow it to evade regulations that have traditionally governed the industry in which it operates. But winning those battles is key to Uber’s next stage.
After more than a decade of bleeding cash, including more than $20 billion since 2015 alone, the easy money may finally be drying up as interest rates are seriously hiked for the first time since the Great Recession. During the pandemic, Uber shed its big bets on things like autonomous vehicles and flying cars that it once promised were the future of mobility. Instead, we began to see what having to be financially sustainable will mean for the service Uber provides: higher prices and longer wait times to such a degree that taxis are looking appealing again.
At the same moment as Uber’s service deteriorates and the subsidy that helped it decimate taxis evaporates, the company may finally be trying to take over its biggest competitor. Uber signed a deal to list New York City taxis on its app in March, followed by similar deals in San Francisco and Italy. This development not only allows Uber to control the customer relationship, seize the trip data, and increase its supply of workers, but it could subject taxis to Uber’s rules after effectively breaking the longstanding regulatory framework. That will mean algorithmic management for drivers and surge pricing for riders.
The Uber Files add to our understanding of the evil deeds that made Uber what it is today, and how aspects of that playbook continue to drive its global war against workers. As the company’s business model seems set to undergo a fundamental shift, we have an opportunity to correct a mistake made years ago. Uber’s campaign to remake our transport system to serve its commercial imperatives regardless of the consequences should end here. We can do much better.