Uber has had a controversial history since its founding in 2009, from violent conflicts among drivers to a secret software allegedly used to evade law enforcement. Now, a leak of over 124,000 documents dubbed the Uber files shows the extent to which the firm under co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick capitalised on that chaos to expand across 40 countries.
My research explores the relationship between Uber and the state. The company’s strategy to grow at all costs has been uneven, shaped and slowed by varying regulations in different markets. In recent years, Uber appears to have toned down its approach and stop some of the more aggressive activity detailed in the leaks. But in my view, the strategy at the heart of the company’s success means it will always be in battle with the laws where it operates.
The Uber files reportedly show the company had a deliberate strategy of breaking or ignoring the law and was very much aware of it. Uber’s original service – citizens driving other citizens in their private cars without permits or licenses of any kind – was mostly in a grey legal area. In emails, executives joked about being “pirates” and the company’s model being “just fucking illegal”, when it faced legal opposition in entering new markets.
The leaked documents also reveal the role that lobbying and relationships with friendly politicians played in Uber’s success. The company hired powerful lobbyists, many of them former members or associates of national governments who promised to end revolving doors between politics and industry. Meetings with politicians included figures like France’s then-economy minister (and now president) Emmanuel Macron and then-mayor of Hamburg (and now chancellor of Germany) Olaf Scholz.
Embracing the chaos also allegedly included endangering the company’s drivers. Almost wherever Uber landed, taxi unions organised protests that could sometimes turn violent. Messages in the Uber files show that Kalanick considered that Uber drivers going to a taxi drivers’ protest in France was “worth it” as “violence guarantee[s] success”.
Uber also allegedly had in place a “kill switch”, a technological tool to prevent authorities from accessing Uber’s data when they raided its offices.