Uber’s privileged access to politicians shows the lobby system urgently needs to change | Vicky Cann

The European Commission has long been complacent about its revolving-door problem. It’s time to tackle corporate capture

The Uber files are extraordinarily revealing about the ride-hailing app’s lobbying operations across Europe. The company’s extensive and ruthless tactics were exposed this week after the career lobbyist Mark MacGann, who led Uber’s efforts to win over governments, leaked thousands of documents to the Guardian. They look like a prime example of corporate capture. Corporate or regulatory capture happens when corporations dominate decision-making and are able to influence outcomes to suit their interests. And, from Paris to London to Brussels, far too many politicians seem to have fallen under Uber’s spell.

Easy access to decision-makers, whether face to face, by email or by text message, has clearly been at the heart of Uber’s lobby strategy. The company has cultivated relationships and merrily schmoozed political leaders and ministers across the world.

The Uber files is a global investigation based on a trove of 124,000 documents that were leaked to the Guardian by Mark MacGann, Uber's former chief lobbyist in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The data consist of emails, iMessages and WhatsApp exchanges between the Silicon Valley giant's most senior executives, as well as memos, presentations, notebooks, briefing papers and invoices.

The leaked records cover 40 countries and span 2013 to 2017, the period in which Uber was aggressively expanding across the world. They reveal how the company broke the law, duped police and regulators, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied governments across the world.

To facilitate a global investigation in the public interest, the Guardian shared the data with 180 journalists in 29 countries via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The investigation was managed and led by the Guardian with the ICIJ.

In a statement, Uber said: "We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values. Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come."

At the EU level, Uber has had 70 meetings with the highest levels in the European Commission, including 24 with commissioners since late November 2014. And these are just the meetings that we know about. Alongside the contact the then French economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, and his team made with Uber and the off-the-book meetings the company had with various UK ministers, Uber has enjoyed privileged and often private access to decision-makers for far too long.

Uber has never been one of the highest spenders in the EU’s big tech lobby. Its lobby spending, which is declared through the EU’s voluntary lobby register, has grown 14-fold since 2013, but from a low base. And it has not had its own army of lobbyists either.

Instead, data from LobbyFacts shows that Uber has spent more than €1m since 2013 on paying lobby and law firms to lobby on its behalf. Beyond this, Uber is a member of various industry lobby groups in Brussels that help to both amplify its lobby demands and act as cover when it wants to operate under the radar. This is a tried and tested tactic of the big tech lobby.

And let’s not forget thinktanks. In the Brussels bubble it is almost de rigueur for big corporations to join thinktanks and to fund their work in the hope of gaining support for lobby demands and, crucially, for the political framing of an issue. Uber is affiliated to several thinktanks, according to our research.

Back in 2014, Uber was worried that its fulsome supporter Neelie Kroes, the EU commissioner for the digital agenda from 2010 until 2014, was due to leave office. So the company set out to bring her onboard, surely aware of the insider knowhow and extensive contact books that such appointments can bring.

The European Commission has long been complacent about its revolving-door problem. Despite warnings before Kroes and others were due to leave office in 2014, it resisted demands to tighten the rules.

But even these lobby tactics can’t fully explain why Uber was able to enjoy political access and influence among so many politicians. For that, we need to recognise the wave of enthusiasm within EU policymaking circles for so-called “innovation” and big tech “disruptors”. Policymakers have viewed platforms such as Uber, Airbnb and others as the titans of “growth and innovation” – granting them privileged access.

It’s time to tackle this kind of corporate capture. Full lobby transparency is a prerequisite, but it’s not enough on its own. We need tough rules to tackle privileged access and an end to the revolving door. And we need a real debate about the power that corporations exercise over our political discourse. Without this, we have no hope for tackling the climate emergency, the cost of living crisis or the power of big tech.

At the end of the day, the reason Uber lobbies governments is in order to protect its business model. This model relies on privatising profit and socialising risks – and those “risks” include responsibility for its workers’ employment rights. Already, there have been attempts to regulate this business model. Last year, the UK supreme court ruled that Uber’s drivers were “workers” rather than “self-employed”. In the coming months, members of the European parliament will look at a proposal to regulate the rights of workers for Uber and other similar platforms.

Politicians now need to heed the lessons of the Uber files and break the spell.

  • Vicky Cann is a campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels NGO that that exposes corporate lobbying

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Vicky Cann

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