Cache of Documents From Uber’s Travis Kalanick Years Reveal Exactly What You Expect

Harry Davies, et al., the Guardian:

The unprecedented leak to the Guardian of more than 124,000 documents – known as the Uber files – lays bare the ethically questionable practices that fuelled the company’s transformation into one of Silicon Valley’s most famous exports.

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 data shows how Uber tried to shore up support by discreetly courting prime ministers, presidents, billionaires, oligarchs and media barons.

Do not mistake my headline for a dismissal of the significance of these documents. Uber was a company with scumbag leadership and expansion tactics to match from its founding. We all know this. But reading these excerpts in the words of executives and lobbyists is something else.

Scilla Alecci, ICIJ:

Executives at Uber Technologies Inc. took notice; they feared that their company could be next, newly leaked documents show. As it expanded its footprint around the globe, the ride-hailing giant had devised ways to save millions of dollars in taxes by routing profits through Bermuda and other tax havens.

“Our corporate tax structure is — in pure European political terms — the Achilles heel of the company,” Mark MacGann, Uber’s chief lobbyist in Europe at the time, wrote to the company’s tax department chief.

As scrutiny ramped up, the leaked documents show, Uber hit on a brazen strategy to steer attention away from its tax liabilities: help authorities collect taxes from its drivers instead.

In an email to other managers, MacGann declared that sharing information on drivers’ earnings could “contain” the demands of tax authorities. By doing so, Uber could “avoid broadening of the investigation to other countries and/or other tax matters (corporation),” he wrote.

MacGann is the source of these leaked documents. One could argue he was just doing his job, but that does not excuse how awful it is for him to advocate scapegoating the company’s drivers on tax issues.

These documents are useful, but only in the sense of creating a more fulsome public record of the illegal and unethical behaviour Uber used as its growth model. Even though it clearly operated criminally, there is no turning back; the company and its competitors are firmly engrained in transportation infrastructure around the world. What I am left with after reading these stories is a question: how much of that Uber remains?

According to a statement from an Uber spokesperson to the ICIJ, 90% of the company’s current employees were hired after Dara Khosrowshahi took the CEO job. That sounds like impressive change, especially since the company still fails to acknowledge drivers as employees. But that was five years ago; at many Silicon Valley companies, that is a lifetime. But at least one of the executives responsible for sketchy Kalanick policies — in this case, executing a so-called “kill switch” to prevent Dutch investigators’ access to company files — now runs Uber Eats, which been a lifeline for its parent company during the pandemic.