After last year’s whistleblowing revelations relating to practices at Facebook, the Uber files published by the Guardian on Monday constitute another seminal big tech morality tale. The vast cache of documents – leaked by a former employee – offers a unique and salutary insight into the arrogance and hubris of a digital giant as it sought to expand at any cost. At the same time, it chronicles the complicity of a political class which, itself drunk on Silicon Valley Kool-Aid, went along for the ride.
Comprising more than 124,000 documents, including 83,000 emails, iMessages and WhatsApp communications, the files demonstrate that as Uber sought to expand across the globe between 2013 and 2017, the Californian cab-hailing service treated existing employment law as a merely temporary obstacle – one to be undermined by establishing facts on the ground. Aware that the company’s use of unlicensed drivers broke the rules in countries such as France, Germany and Russia, executives celebrated the fact as evidence of an impressive and even endearing iconoclasm: “we’re just fucking illegal” reads one message; in another an executive jokes that Uber staff had become “pirates”.
The price of this thirst for disruption was paid by the drivers, whom Uber refused to acknowledge as employees – preferring the convenient fiction that they were self-employed contractors. The files testify to an unconscionable executive disregard for the physical safety of those on the frontline of Uber’s brave new world. As an inevitable European backlash ensued from licensed taxi drivers, the company deployed insecure recruits as foot-soldiers in a campaign to force through regulatory reform of the market. In 2016, after a violent anti-Uber demonstration in Paris, the company’s co-founder and then chief executive, Travis Kalanick, demanded the mobilisation of a driver counter-demonstration, escalating tensions still further. In one leaked message, Mr Kalanick observed: “Violence guarantee[s] success.”
A back channel to Emmanuel Macron – at that point a liberalising economy minster in the French government – no doubt contributed to Uber’s sense of brash self-confidence. But during this formative moment in the development of the modern gig economy, Mr Macron was far from alone in viewing Uber’s landgrab sympathetically. In economies still reeling from the fallout of the 2008 crash, governments desperate for growth were captured by a formidable and costly lobbying exercise operating beyond the bounds of democratic scrutiny. Potential implications for workers’ rights of Uber’s model were ignored; protests were treated as luddite opposition to progress. Evidence of undeclared Uber meetings with at least six Conservative ministers, including George Osborne, underlines yet again the need for reform of informal lobbying rules in this country.
Mark MacGann, a career lobbyist who was a senior executive at Uber between 2014 and 2016, has performed an invaluable service in bringing these damning documents to light. He did so in order to expose what he describes as anti-democratic collusion “between the worlds of investment, business and politics”, which led to the law being knowingly flouted. In a statement responding to the leak, Uber has distanced itself from and condemned the wild west ethos embodied by Mr Kalanick during the years of aggressive expansion. But those “pirate” years highlight a broader truth, as the digitalisation of society continues at pace. It took a supreme court ruling last year to finally force Uber to treat British drivers as employees with a right to the minimum wage and holiday pay. Tech companies have transformed everyday lives for the better in many ways. But that does not place them beyond proper regulation, morality or the law. The Uber files provide the latest incontestable evidence that a new era of digital regulation is required.