Takeaways from the Uber Files investigation

(Lucy Naland/Washington Post illustration; Samantha Reinders for The Washington Post; Uber screenshots; iStock)
Editor’s note

This story has been updated to reflect that the source of the Uber Files trove, former company lobbyist Mark MacGann, has publicly identified himself. The Washington Post and other project partners previously had agreed to keep his identity confidential.

Uber’s then-chief executive Travis Kalanick texts fellow executives “violence guarantee success” as clashes with taxi drivers break out in Paris, a key market for the company. The company’s computers in Amsterdam abruptly go dark during a police raid after executives order the activation of a remote “kill switch.” Emmanuel Macron, as France’s economy minister, forges an alliance with Kalanick amid political unrest over Uber’s expansion there. Russian oligarchs and media companies, meanwhile, are recruited as “strategic partners” to help the company enter markets with entrenched political obstacles.

These are among the key findings of the Uber Files, an international investigation based on more than 124,000 records that a former top lobbyist for Uber, Mark MacGann, provided to the Guardian. It shared the material with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which helped lead the project, and dozens of other news organizations, including The Washington Post. The documents reveal how the ride-hailing company aggressively entered cities around the world — while frequently challenging the reach of existing laws and regulations.

While users saw a handy app that brought rides to them with a few taps on their smartphones, executives behind the scenes were pumping billions of dollars of investor cash into an explicit corporate strategy of taking down “Big Taxi” and defeating other rivals. The money paid for hefty driver subsidies that were withdrawn once Uber got established, undermining earnings of those who had bought or leased cars to work for the company. It also offered deep, but temporary, discounts for passengers who grew accustomed to convenience offered at an artificially low price.

Years after Kalanick was pushed out by the board amid high-profile controversies in 2017, his legacy has changed the way much of the world travels. But the full, behind-the-scenes story of how Uber became a transportation colossus has not before been told.

Here are key takeaways from the investigation:

Uber leveraged a violent backlash against its drivers to win support

When it launched operations in a new foreign city, Uber burned through millions of dollars in investor capital to entice drivers and riders to its service. While it was previously known that Uber had provided subsidies, the documents show how suddenly the company altered the economics of ride-hailing in cities abroad. In some places, Uber initially paid nearly 90 percent of drivers’ hourly earnings, essentially giving away rides for free, sending taxi drivers into economic despair.

As taxi drivers grew fearful of losing their livelihoods and lashed out, Uber leveraged violence against its drivers in its efforts to win sympathy from regulators and the public. Behind the scenes, Uber provided details to journalists if company officials thought the violence would result in negative attention for the taxi industry, the documents show. Uber would also simultaneously activate its lobbyists, highlighting attacks on drivers to secure meetings with politicians and push for regulatory changes to make its operations legal, the documents show.

In a statement to The Post, an Uber spokeswoman acknowledged past mistakes in the company’s treatment of drivers, especially in the years that Kalanick ran the company. But she said no one, including Kalanick, wanted violence against Uber drivers.

A spokeswoman for Kalanick said, “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.”

Uber leveraged violent attacks against its drivers to pressure politicians

Former top executive, Mark MacGann, comes forward as source of Uber Files

MacGann, the former high-ranking Uber executive who served as the company’s public face in Europe during a tumultuous period of expansion, revealed himself Monday in a video interview with the Guardian as the whistleblower behind blockbuster revelations into Uber’s inner workings.

MacGann said he bears some responsibility for company actions he now condemns.

Pulling back the curtain on the company’s operations during those years — even exposing communications that show his role in some of Uber’s more controversial practices — is his attempt to make amends, he said.

“I was the one talking to governments, I was the one pushing this with the media, I was the one telling people that they should change the rules because drivers were going to benefit and people were going to get so much economic opportunity,” he said.

MacGann said he left the company having concluded that Uber’s culture left him powerless to question or change its ways, and fearing that the rancorous backlash against the company put his family’s safety at risk.

Mark MacGann, former top executive, comes forward as Uber Files leaker

Uber used its tech capabilities to gain a covert edge over authorities

As Uber was forcing its way into local markets, it turned to technological tools to disrupt regulatory raids and conceal its activity from law enforcement.

Uber promised to connect customers in search of a ride with drivers looking to make money. But that engineering prowess didn’t just go toward a sleek app. Uber harnessed tools known as the kill switch, Greyball and Casper to thwart authorities investigating its service. The kill switch in some cases was used to remotely cut access to Uber’s internal systems as regulators raided corporate offices.

“Please hit the kill switch ASAP,” Kalanick wrote in an email, ordering a subordinate to sever office laptops and other devices from the company’s systems after police raided its Amsterdam office in April 2015. “Access must be shut down in AMS,” using a three-letter code for the city.

Kalanick issued a statement through a spokeswoman addressing the use of tools such as the kill switch. “Uber, like most other businesses operating overseas, used tools that protect intellectual property and the privacy of their customers, and ensure due process rights are respected in the event of an extrajudicial raid,” the statement said. It added, “Notably, Mr. Kalanick did not create, direct or oversee these systems set up by legal and compliance departments and has never been charged in any jurisdiction for obstruction of justice or any related offense.”

The spokeswoman said Kalanick did not direct the use of Greyball “for any illegal purpose.”

Regulators entered Uber’s offices only to see computers go dark before their eyes

Uber risked driver well-being as it rushed to expand in South Africa

Uber promised South Africans better lives but knew drivers risked debt and danger, promising to empower a new breed of independent entrepreneurs. The Uber Files, however, show that executives made decisions that imperiled the financial and physical health of drivers to achieve their own success.

Some drivers say they are worse off than when they started because Uber made policy decisions that deprived them of their ability to earn a living and heightened the risks of driving in some parts of the world.

Uber drivers faced particular peril after the company began allowing cash payments — a move the company once opposed as too dangerous — as it sought to expand its customer base to South Africans who used traditional taxi services and may not have had credit cards. Drivers became more vulnerable to robberies and attacks, but many chose to keep working for Uber because, in a country where one in three adults are unemployed, they had few other options.

Uber said drivers have found good economic opportunities using its app, and it has taken steps to improve driver safety in South Africa, including giving them the ability to reject cash transactions.

Uber promised South Africans better lives but knew drivers risked debt and danger

One of Uber’s trusted allies in Europe? Emmanuel Macron.

When Emmanuel Macron ran for the French presidency in 2017, one of his campaign promises was to mold France into a start-up nation.

It was never a secret that Macron considered Uber and other multinationals as a part of that plan. But the documents show that Macron, when he was the French economy minister, was willing to go much further than previously known to achieve his goals. Company executives’ internal messages from 2013 to 2017 suggest that Macron’s backing on occasion conflicted with the policies of the leftist government he served.

Uber managers and lobbyists believed that Macron was willing to support them by pushing regulators to be “less conservative” in their interpretation of rules limiting the company’s operations. At times, Uber was itself surprised by the extent of his backing, internal communications show. Macron’s commitment to Uber’s business model was rarely cast into doubt, despite some executives’ later concluding that he was a less valuable ally than they had thought.

In a statement in response to the documents, the French presidency said that the “economic and employment policies at the time, in which [Macron] was an active participant, are well known” and that his “functions naturally led him to meet and interact with many companies.”

As Uber steamrolled into France, Emmanuel Macron was a ‘true ally’

Uber allied with Russian oligarchs in bid to get close to Putin

Uber cut investment deals with Russian oligarchs in an effort to get close to President Vladimir Putin as its activities in Moscow and other cities came under increasing scrutiny from the authorities. The Uber Files provide a detailed look at Uber’s efforts to recruit as allies some of Russia’s richest men as well as the influential head of the country’s biggest bank, even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and growing authoritarianism in Russia. Uber’s biggest Russian investor was LetterOne, a firm founded by Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven that invested $200 million, which was publicly announced. It also had an undisclosed side deal worth $50 million, which executives said in emails was designed to encourage the firm to aid Uber’s success in Russia.

As Uber was negotiating the investment deals, which came to include hiring a lobbyist recommended by LetterOne for up to $650,000, Uber’s lawyers raised concerns about it being exposed to risks under American laws.

Ultimately, the company’s success had limits, even when it employed aggressive tactics to crack open new markets. It faced stiff competition from a homegrown firm, Yandex, with which it formed a joint venture in 2017, effectively retreating from Russia.

Uber said that no one at the company today was involved in developing its strategy in Russia, and it disavows any previous relationships with figures connected to Putin. The company said that it now has a “robust compliance program.” Asked about their involvement in Uber, Fridman and Aven, both of whom have been sanctioned since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said their links to the company were minimal.

A spokeswoman for Kalanick said, “Mr. Kalanick never authorized or directed any illegal conduct in Uber’s expansion efforts in Russia, and in fact had very limited involvement in those expansion plans.”

Uber wooed Russia’s rich and powerful but failed there anyway

Uber sought ‘strategic investments’ from media companies

As Uber encountered obstacles to its expansion into new markets, the company pursued an aggressive global influence campaign to try to shape government policy and public opinion. A hallmark of that campaign was inviting influential people and entities within those markets — including owners of several major media organizations — to sign on as “strategic investors,” in hopes of tapping into their high-level connections to spread a favorable message.

“We didn’t really need the money, we believed we were doing them a favor by taking their money, because we wanted the top-level political access and influence that came with the money,” said Mark MacGann, a former top lobbyist for Uber who worked on establishing these deals.

In Germany, Uber pursued a partnership with the popular tabloid Bild, convinced it could open doors with Angela Merkel and other top government officials. After Bild’s corporate parent invested in Uber, Kalanick was granted a high-profile spotlight at a Berlin conference sponsored by the media company, where he was interviewed onstage by Bild’s publisher, an event that generated headlines around the globe.

Uber said the company sought partnerships with corporate leaders that “could help us understand certain markets and grow our business,” but never presumed that its deals with media owners would result in favorable coverage. Uber’s media partners say these deals were investments arranged by the business sides of their companies and did not compromise the editorial independence of their news operations.

Uber sought ‘strategic investors’ in foreign media to win government favor