As Uber aggressively pushed into markets around the world, the ride-hailing service lobbied top political leaders including France's Emmanuel Macron to relax labour and taxi laws, according to a global media investigation into thousands of leaked files.
The report also reveals the company used a “kill switch'' to thwart regulators and law enforcement, channelled money through Bermuda and other tax havens and considered portraying violence against its drivers as a way to gain public sympathy.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a non-profit network of investigative reporters, scoured internal Uber texts, emails, invoices and other documents to deliver what it called “an unprecedented look into the ways Uber defied taxi laws and upended workers' rights".
Dubbed the Uber Files, the leak consists of over 124,000 documents spanning the period between 2013 and 2017.
The documents were first leaked to the British newspaper The Guardian, which shared them with the consortium.
They showed Macron went to "extraordinary lengths" to support Uber’s efforts to disrupt France’s closed-shop taxi industry when he was economy minister, according to the Guardian, which cited text message exchanges between Macron and Uber executives.
In a statement to the newspaper, the French presidential palace said Macron’s ministerial duties at the time “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”.
In a written statement. Uber spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker acknowledged “mistakes'' in the past and said CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, hired in 2017, had been “tasked with transforming every aspect of how Uber operates".
"When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally: 90 per cent of current Uber employees joined after Dara became CEO," Hazelbaker said.
'Hit the kill switch ASAP'
Founded in 2009, Uber sought to skirt taxi regulations and offer inexpensive transportation via a ride-sharing app. The consortium's 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 labour and taxi laws and relax background checks on drivers, the papers show.
The investigation 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, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick personally issued an order: “Please hit the kill switch ASAP ... Access must be shut down in AMS (Amsterdam)".
The consortium also reported that Kalanick saw the threat of violence against Uber drivers in France by aggrieved taxi drivers as a way to gain public support. “Violence guarantee(s) success,'' Kalanick texted colleagues.
In a response to the consortium, Kalanick spokesman Devon Spurgeon said the former CEO “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety".
The Uber Files say the company cut its tax bill by millions of dollars by sending profits through Bermuda and other tax havens, then “sought to deflect attention from its tax liabilities by helping authorities collect taxes from its drivers''.