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Leaked internal communications reveal how rideshare giant Uber exploited violence against its drivers to boost public opinion, and sometimes flouted laws, as the company battled against taxi drivers and regulators in its rapid expansion in cities across the world.
After Uber drivers were sent to a taxi-industry protest in France in 2016, co-founder and then-CEO Travis Kalanick reportedly sent a text saying the risk to drivers’ safety was “worth it” and that “violence guarantees success.”
Kalanick’s comment is among the “Uber Files,” 124,000 documents leaked to The Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other major outlets including the Washington Post.
“Get some sleep when you can,” said Nairi Hourdajian, Uber’s head of communications, to one of its lobbyists in Europe in 2014. “Remember that everything is not in your control, and that sometimes we have problems because, well, we’re just f—— illegal.”
After four Uber drivers were attacked in 2015 by taxi drivers in the Netherlands — protesting Uber’s use of nonprofessional drivers on the grounds that it was illegal — the company’s general manager in Belgium, Niek Van Leeuwen, apparently wrote to Kalanick and others: “We keep the violence narrative going for a few days, before we offer the solution.”
By prolonging the narrative of violence, executives hoped to pressure politicians to weigh in on the issue and pump up publicity in Uber’s favor.
“Excellent work. This is exactly what we wanted and the timing is perfect,” wrote Uber’s head of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Mark MacGann, after the incidents.
Discussing an attack by taxi drivers against one of its cars in Belgium, company lobbyist Cristian Samoilovich wrote, “We need to use this in our favour.”
The Guardian’s Uber Files also found that French President Emmanuel Macron, then France’s finance minister, helped Uber access the French cabinet – and that U.S. President Biden, then vice president, changed a speech to refer more favorably to the company after a meeting with Kalanick in 2016.
In a statement released Sunday, a spokesperson for Kalanick denied allegations that Uber acted illegally.
Uber acknowledged that its “mistakes” under Kalanick “culminated in one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America,” but that the company has changed since it ousted its founder and hired new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in 2017.
But the company continued to grapple with controversy: just last month, it shared a report cataloging nearly 4,000 sexual assault claims on its rides in 2019-20, which was a decline on previous years.