Uber’s Global Strategy: Ties With Macron, Deals with Putin’s Oligarchs, and an Anti-Investigation Kill Switch

Seven heads of state and 20 ministers in various governments across the world met with representatives of Uber during the period covered by the leak. This did not happen organically: the company hired a lengthy list of lobbyists – including former advisors to President Obama, ex-ambassadors, and people with close ties in government circles. When political contacts alone were not enough to prevent investigations from being launched, the company set up an emergency procedure for destroying documents that could be of interest to authorities

Seven heads of state and 20 ministers in various governments across the world met with representatives of Uber during the period covered by the leak. This did not happen organically: the company hired a lengthy list of lobbyists – including former advisors to President Obama, ex-ambassadors, and people with close ties in government circles. When political contacts alone were not enough to prevent investigations from being launched, the company set up an emergency procedure for destroying documents that could be of interest to authorities

Seven heads of state and 20 ministers in various governments across the world met with representatives of Uber during the period covered by the leak. This did not happen organically: the company hired a lengthy list of lobbyists – including former advisors to President Obama, ex-ambassadors, and people with close ties in government circles. When political contacts alone were not enough to prevent investigations from being launched, the company set up an emergency procedure for destroying documents that could be of interest to authorities

Uri Blau, Shomrim and ICIJ staff

France President Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Reuters

July 10, 2022

Summary

In

October 2015, violent protests by taxi drivers in Marseilles led to chaos in France’s second city. The protestors overturned vehicles, burned tires, and blocked access to the airport and railway station. They were protesting against the activities of Uber, which, they claimed, was violating local law and threatening their livelihood.

After several days of nonstop clashes, the regional commander of the national police issued an order suspending the operation of Uber’s most popular service in the most important parts of the city. Uber needed the help of the French government to extricate itself from the imbroglio, so it turned to former investment banker and rising political star Emmanuel Macron. Macron – now president of France, of course – was serving as Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs at the time. “I will look into this personally,” Macron promised Mark McGann, Uber's head of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, in a pre-dawn message sent on October 22, “Let’s stay calm at this point.” Whether or not it has any connection to this message is unclear, but the very same evening, French police amended the suspension order in a way that Uber viewed as a victory. “Good cooperation,” McGann wrote to Macron. “Thank you for your support.”

This exchange is part of around a dozen messages between Uber and Macron, which are being revealed as part of an extraordinary glimpse behind the scenes of the massive ridesharing company’s global business practices. According to the leaked documents, Macron is just one of 20 or so ministers in various countries who met with Uber representatives. Moreover, the company held meetings with at least seven heads of state, including former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to records of the meeting, attached to the emails, Netanyahu promised Uber CEO Travis Kalanick that he would work “in parallel” with the company to “break resistance” to Uber launching operations in Israel. Netanyahu opted not to respond to this article.

Netanyahu, as mentioned, was not the only head of state to meet Uber. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Irish President Enda Kenny, and then-Vice President Joe Biden were among the leaders to meet with Uber officials. According to the leaked documents, some of these heads of state and ministers explained to Uber officials what they needed to do to operate in their countries. According to the leak, the prime minister of the Netherlands, for example, following a meeting with Uber in 2016, explained to the company’s CEO in comments added to an email that “Right now you are seen as aggressive…Change the way people look at the company” by stressing the positives, Rutte advised. “This will make you seem cuddly.”

Investigative reports about Uber, which are being published simultaneously across the world, are based on a massive leak of the company’s documents – 124,000 in total – obtained by the British newspaper The Guardian and referred to as The Uber Files. The Guardian shared this leak, covering a period from 2014 to 2107, with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and, through that organization, 180 journalists from 44 media outlets worldwide, including the Washington Post, Paris-based La Monde, and the BBC. Shomrim, through journalist Uri Blau, is the Israeli representative on the project.

The Uber Files. Illustration: Rocco Fazzari-ICIJ

Let the drivers pay taxes

According to the leaked material, Uber may have portrayed itself as being in the vanguard of the digital revolution, but it achieved its business goals across the world by using the tried and trusted method of paying huge sums of money for a global lobbying machine which exerted pressure on politicians and regulators. Among those figures hired by the company were David Plouffe, an American political strategist, best known as the campaign manager for Barack Obama's successful 2008 presidential campaign, and Jim Messina, Obama’s former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. They were hired to represent Uber in its contacts with various governments as the company sought to promote the necessary legislation in terms of operating a taxi company and workers’ rights. Since 2014, the company has spent $11 million on lobbying in the United States alone.

According to the leak, as part of its efforts to enter the local market, Uber made deals with oligarchs associated with President Vladimir Putin – some of which have been implemented since then under sanctions.

The leaked material suggests that Uber was aware that some aspects of its activity fell in gray areas and prepared for legislation. In one case, a lawyer representing the company sent a “dawn raid manual” to its employees, instructing them how to act in case any authority should seek to confiscate documents that allegedly indicate illegal activity. The documents reveal that, on at least six occasions, the company used a “kill switch” to delete from its computers documents that authorities could be interested in confiscating. In one case, the leak reveals that the company’s CEO personally ordered the use of the kill switch in the Netherlands. Please hit the kill switch ASAP,” Kalanick ordered. “Access must be shut down in AMS [Amsterdam].”

The leaked documents also relate to the structure of Uber and its tax liabilities. In early 2015, a public discourse began in Europe over the issue of the tax paid by American technology companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google. Uber was concerned that it would be next in line. “Our corporate tax structure is — in pure European political terms — the Achilles heel of the company,” McGann wrote to colleagues.” The solution, according to the leak, was to divert attention away from the company’s profits by employing a new strategy – helping tax authorities across the world collect tax from Uber drivers.

The Uber Files. Illustration: Rocco Fazzari-ICIJ

Uber’s Israeli representatives were asked a series of detailed questions, but the company opted to respond with a general statement that is designed to be published by all the media outlets involved in the Uber Files project. Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for Uber, acknowledged “mistakes” and “missteps” that culminated five years ago in “one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America.”

She 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” in 2017, 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.”

She said that Uber has not used a kill switch to thwart regulatory actions since 2017 and that “no one at Uber has ever been happy about violence against a driver."  The company dismissed any suggestion that it received special treatment from Macron or his cabinet and emphasized that no one who works at Uber today was involved in building relationships with Russian oligarchs.

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.