A stash of leaked documents has revealed how French President, Emmanuel Macron, and some top politicians secretly helped tech giant Uber break laws.
The leaked documents numbering over 124,000 showed how the $43bn (£36bn) company, which now makes approximately 19m journeys a day, flouted laws, duped police, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied governments during its aggressive global expansion.
Reports revealed that the documents were leaked to the UK Guardian which shared the files with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a number of media organisations including the BBC.
Dubbed ‘the Uber Files’ the documents exposed 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, from 2013 to 2017, when Uber was run by its co-founder Travis Kalanick, who tried to introduce the cab-hailing service into cities around the world by brute force, even if that meant breaching laws and taxi regulations.
Kalanick tried to introduce the cab-hailing service into cities around the world by brute force, 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.
Apart from lobbying governments, the 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 fucking illegal.”
The 124,000 Uber Files docs – including 83,000 emails and 1,000 other files involving conversations – also contains texts between Kalanick and Macron, who secretly helped the company in France when he was economy minister, allowing Uber frequent and direct access to him and his staff.
Macron, the French president, appears to have gone to extraordinary lengths to help Uber, even telling the company he had brokered a secret “deal” with its opponents in the French cabinet, according to the BBC.
Macron was documented to have told Kalanick that he would reform laws in Uber’s favour in a time when French taxi drivers staged sometimes violent protests in the streets against the company.
‘Spectacular’ Macron help
Paris was the scene of Uber’s first European launch, and it met stiff resistance from the taxi industry, culminating in violent protests in the streets.
In August 2014, an ambitious former banker named Emmanuel Macron had just been appointed minister for the economy. He saw Uber as a source of growth and badly needed new jobs, and was keen to help.
That October, he held a meeting with Mr Kalanick and other executives and lobbyists, which marked the start of a long – but little-publicised – stint as a champion of the controversial firm’s interests within government.
Uber lobbyist Mark MacGann described the meeting as “spectacular. Like I’ve never seen,” the files show. “We will dance soon,” he added.
“Emmanuel” and “Travis” were soon on first name terms, and met at least four times, the files show – in Paris, and at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland. Only the Davos meeting has been previously reported.
At one point Uber wrote to Mr Macron saying it was “extremely grateful”. “The openness and welcome we receive is unusual in government-industry relations.”
French taxi drivers were particularly enraged by the 2014 launch of UberPop – a service which allowed unlicensed drivers to offer rides, at much lower prices.
Courts and parliament banned it, but Uber kept the service running as it challenged the law.
Mr Macron didn’t think there was a future for UberPop, but he agreed to work with the company to rewrite France’s laws governing its other services.
“Uber will provide an outline for a regulatory framework for ridesharing. We will connect our respective teams to start working on a feasible proposal that could become the formal framework in France,” an email from Travis Kalanick to Mr Macron reads.
On 25 June 2015, the protests became violent, and a week later Mr Macron texted Mr Kalanick with an apparent offer of help.
“[I] will gather everybody next week to prepare the reform and correct the law.”
The same day, Uber announced the suspension of UberPop in France.
Months later Mr Macron signed off on a decree relaxing requirements for licensing Uber drivers.
The extent of the now-president of France’s relationship with the controversial global firm that was operating in violation of French law has not been revealed until now.
A spokesperson for Mr Macron said in an email: “His functions naturally led him to meet and interact with many companies engaged in the sharp shift which came out during those years in the service sector, which had to be facilitated by unlocking administrative and regulatory hurdles.”
In a statement responding to the leak, Uber admitted to “mistakes and missteps”, but said it had been transformed since 2017 under the leadership of its current chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi.
“We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values,” it said. “Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come.”
Kalanick’s spokesperson said Uber’s expansion initiatives were “led by over a hundred leaders in dozens of countries around the world and at all times under the direct oversight and with the full approval of Uber’s robust legal, policy and compliance groups”.
Hit kill switch ASAP’
If the police came knocking, Uber had a second line of defence – the “kill switch”, which made it impossible for visiting law enforcement to access the company’s computers.
This would restrict officers’ access to sensitive company data, such as lists of drivers, which the company believed would harm its growth.
The files confirm earlier news reports about the kill switch, and reveal that Mr Kalanick himself activated the system at least once.
“Please hit the kill switch ASAP. Access must be shut down in AMS [Amsterdam],” an email from his account says.
The kill switch was also used in Canada, Belgium, India, Romania and Hungary, and at least three times in France.
Uber says it has had no “‘kill switch’ designed to thwart regulatory inquiries anywhere in the world” since the new chief executive took over in 2017.
A spokesperson for Mr Kalanick said he never authorised any actions or programmes that would obstruct justice in any country, and any accusation he did is completely false. He said Uber “used tools that protect intellectual property and the privacy of their customers” and that “these fail-safe protocols do not delete any data or information, and were approved by Uber’s legal and regulatory departments”.
According to UK Guardian, Kalanick’s spokesperson further accused reporters of “pressing its false agenda” that he had “directed illegal or improper conduct”.
Uber’s spokesperson said that, when it started, “ridesharing regulations did not exist anywhere in the world” and transport laws were outdated for a smartphone era.