From Delhi rape case to tax fraud: Leaked docs reveal how Uber used dubious ways to get past the law

Uber's rapid expansion leaned on subsidized drivers and discounted fares that undercut the taxi industry, and "often without seeking licenses to operate as a taxi and livery service,"

AgenciesUpdated: Tuesday, July 12, 2022, 01:13 PM IST
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Report: Uber used dubious and potentially illegal tactics for global expansion |

Washington: As Uber aggressively pushed into markets around the world, the ride-sharing service lobbied political leaders to relax labour and taxi laws, used a "kill switch'' to thwart regulators and law enforcement, channeled money through Bermuda and other tax havens and considered portraying violence against its drivers as a way to gain public sympathy, according to a report released Sunday.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a nonprofit 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.'' The documents were first leaked to the Brtiish newspaper The Guardian, which shared them with the consortium.

Past mistakes

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% of current Uber employees joined after Dara became CEO.''

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 labor and taxi laws and relax background checks on drivers, the papers show.

Use of technology to get past the law

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 guarantees (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.''

Tax Fraud

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.''

Delhi rape case

After a woman passenger was raped in an Uber cab in Delhi on December 5, 2014, there was panic inside the company's headquarters in San Franciso, the leaked documents revealed.

According to a report by Indian Express, which partnered with ICIJ for this investigation, after the Delhi rape, the company decided to take two distinct stands on the issue. The company took the line that the flawed Indian system of Background Checks (BGCs) of drivers was the reason why the accused committed the sexual harassment offence.

And the second one was to blame the Indian authorities. The leaked documents revealed that Mark MacGann, then Uber’s Head of Public Policy for Europe and the Middle East, wrote on December 8: “We’re in crisis talks right now and the media is blazing…The Indian driver was indeed licensed, and the weakness/flaw appears to be in the local licensing scheme.’’

He again sent an email to his team: “We are in the process of platinum-plating our background checks in other regions, given the issue in India (where the official State system is at fault, not Uber).”

Uber Capitalised on Violence Against Drivers

In 2016, Kalanick reportedly ordered French employees to encourage local Uber drivers to counter-protest the taxi strikes that were on in Paris at the time. The former CEO messaged saying, “I think it’s worth it,” and “Violence guarantees [s] success. And these guys must be resisted, no?”

Drivers across Europe had faced violent retaliation as taxi drivers felt their livelihoods threatened. The investigation found that "in some instances, when drivers were attacked, Uber executives pivoted quickly to capitalize" to seek public and regulatory support, the Post said.

According to the Guardian, Uber has adopted similar tactics in European countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, mobilizing drivers and encouraging them to complain to the police when they were victims of violence, in order to use media coverage to obtain concessions from the authorities.

Blame Game At Uber

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.''

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