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Uber files: Leaked records show how ride-hailing giant ‘broke laws, duped police’ in rise to power

SHARE Uber files: Leaked records show how ride-hailing giant ‘broke laws, duped police’ in rise to power
Uber driver Teresea Melendez waits for her passenger at the Salt Lake City International Airport.

Uber driver Teresea Melendez waits for her passenger at the Salt Lake City Airport on Feb. 1, 2021. Confidential documents leaked to a news organization claim to show how the ride-share company “flouted laws, duped police, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied governments during its aggressive global expansion.”

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Over 100,000 confidential documents leaked to UK news organization The Guardian reportedly reveals how ride-share giant Uber “flouted laws, duped police, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied governments during its aggressive global expansion.”

The records include over 124,000 texts, emails, invoices, briefing notes, presentations and other documents exchanged by top Uber executives, government bureaucrats and world leaders in nearly 30 countries, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Guardian reporting partner on the new information.

What’s the news? According to The Guardian, the leak spans a five-year period when Uber was run by its co-founder Travis Kalanick, who tried to force the cab-hailing service into cities around the world, even if that meant breaching laws and taxi regulations.

During the fierce global backlash, The Guardian reports data shows how Uber tried to shore up support by discreetly courting prime ministers, presidents, billionaires, oligarchs and media barons.

Leaked messages suggest Uber executives were at the same time under no illusions about the company’s law-breaking, with one executive joking they had become “pirates” and another conceding: “We’re just (expletive) illegal.”

Per The Guardian, in one exchange, Kalanick dismissed concerns from other executives that sending Uber drivers to a protest in France put them at risk of violence from angry opponents in the taxi industry. “I think it’s worth it,” he shot back. “Violence guarantee(s) success.”

In a statement, Kalanick’s spokesperson said he “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety” and any suggestion he was involved in such activity would be completely false.

Friends in high places: Founded in 2009, Uber sought to skirt taxi regulations and offer inexpensive transportation via a ride-sharing app. The consortium’s analysis of the “Uber files” revealed the extraordinary lengths that the company undertook to establish itself in nearly 30 countries.

The company’s lobbyists — including former aides to President Barack Obama — pressed government officials to drop their investigations, rewrite labor and taxi laws and relax background checks on drivers, the papers show, the consortium reports.

The investigation by The Guardian, the ICIJ and others found that Uber used “stealth technology″ to fend off government investigations. The company, for example, used a “kill switch″ that cut access to Uber servers and blocked authorities from grabbing evidence during raids in at least six countries.

During a police raid in Amsterdam, the Uber files reported, Kalanick personally issued an order: “Please hit the kill switch ASAP ... Access must be shut down in AMS (Amsterdam).″

Following the money: From Moscow to Johannesburg, bankrolled with unprecedented venture capital funding, Uber heavily subsidized journeys, seducing drivers and passengers on to the app with incentives and pricing models that would not be sustainable, The Guardian reported.

Uber undercut established taxi and cab markets and put pressure on governments to rewrite laws to help pave the way for an app-based, gig-economy model of work that has since proliferated across the world.

In a bid to quell backlash against the company and win changes to taxi and labor laws, Uber planned to spend $90 million in 2016 on lobbying and public relations, one document suggests.

“Its strategy often involved going over the heads of city mayors and transport authorities and straight to the seat of power,” The Guardian reported.

Uber responds: A spokeswoman for Uber, Jill Hazelbaker, acknowledged in response to questions “mistakes” and “missteps” that culminated five years ago in “one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America,” per a report from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Hazelbaker 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,” 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.”

When Uber took Utah for a ride: Uber showed up unannounced in Utah in 2014 and immediately became the focus of attention by Salt Lake City transportation officials who raised concerns about insurance liability, vehicle safety and driver background checks, all issues they were used to regulating in the legacy taxi industry.

While a first response to the unlicensed and unregulated transportation services was punitive, with the city issuing scores of citations and fines that ran as high as $6,500 per incident, changes were made and passed by the Salt Lake City Council in late 2014 to accommodate the newly arrived ride-sharing services.

But, Uber and other similar services claimed the rules were unfair and shouldn’t apply to their business model. That argument found support among Utah state lawmakers who, in 2015, passed legislation that superseded municipal regulatory efforts and carved out a niche for the new services.

At the time, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who sponsored the proposal, said that because the companies were picking up members of the public and operating outside of Salt Lake City, the state needed to step in with regulations. “We need to try to find a fair way to be able to make sure they function, and a safe way,” Adams said.

The state law created a new network transportation company designation and required drivers for the app-based services to be covered by at least $1 million in liability insurance. The new state regulations also allowed ride-share service providers to do their own driver background checks and vehicle safety inspections.

Contributing: Associated Press