‘Violence guarantees success’: how Uber exploited taxi protests

Leak suggests former CEO believed there was an upside to attacks on drivers as firm campaigned for law changes

On 26 January 2016, more than 2,100 furious French taxi drivers, backed by colleagues from Belgium, Spain and Italy, staged a mass anti-Uber protest in and around Paris, blocking the ring road and reducing the city centre to gridlock.

Plumes of smoke from burning tyres rose into the air. As tempers flared outside the blockaded Orly airport, someone got hit by a minibus. Nearly two dozen cab drivers were arrested for offences from assault to arson.

In Lille, an Uber driver was punched in the face after he dropped off a client – or “rider” as the company calls them – at a hotel. Similar violent incidents took place in Toulouse, Marseille and Aix-en-Provence.

After midnight, an Uber manager in France filed a situation report. “Team – all safe. Drivers/riders – generally safe, though 53 incidents so far including 35 involving a rider,” he wrote. “Three relatively serious cases involving taxi violence including one badly damaged car and two beaten-up drivers.”

Taxi drivers demonstrate by blocking the traffic on a peripherique, on January 26, 2016 in Paris, France
Demonstrating taxi drivers block traffic in Paris in 2016. Photograph: Aurélien Meunier/Getty Images

The “team” – Uber’s direct employees – were, indeed, safe. They had been told to avoid displaying Uber “swag” in public and to work outside of the office during the protest, with operations run from a remote emergency situation room. With the strike set to persist for a second day, “lots of security” had been hired, the French manager assured HQ.

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."

Uber’s drivers, though, did not have that kind of protection. Within hours, they would be back on the frontline of France’s taxi wars. Uber did not count them as employees.

According to the Uber files, some at the company appear to have seen an upside in the attacks against drivers. When attacks occurred, Uber moved swiftly to leverage the violence in a campaign to pressure governments to rewrite laws that stymied Uber’s chances of expansion.

It was a playbook repeated in Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, but it was perhaps most evident in France. Before dawn in Europe on 29 January, the Uber chief executive, Travis Kalanick, was messaging on how best to respond to the chaos in Paris.

“Civil disobedience,” Kalanick fired off in a rapid burst of messages. “Fifteen thousand drivers … 50,000 riders … Peaceful march or sit-in.” Uber’s vice-president for communications, Rachel Whetstone, responded cautiously, noting “just fyi” that Uber’s head of public policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Mark MacGann, was “worried about taxi violence” against Uber drivers.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick speaks to students during an interaction at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus in Mumbai, India, January 19, 2016
Travis Kalanick speaking to students in Mumbai, India, in 2016. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Whetstone added that taxi drivers’ unions were “being taken over by far right spoiling for a fight”. “One to think through,” she said. MacGann chipped in, suggesting the French team would “look at effective civil disobedience and at the same time keep folks safe”.

Kalanick’s startlingly frank reply suggested he thought any further trouble could benefit Uber in its continuing battle with the French government. “If we have 50,000 riders they won’t and can’t do anything,” he wrote. “I think it’s worth it. Violence guarantee[s] success. And these guys must be resisted, no? Agreed that right place and time must be thought out.”


A former senior Uber executive present at that time recalls feeling that Kalanick’s instructions were part of a wider strategic push by the company to “weaponise drivers” and support the lobbying push by keeping “the controversy burning”.

In a statement, Kalanick’s spokesperson questioned the authenticity of some documents. She said Kalanick “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety” and any suggestion that he was involved in such activity would be completely false.

After the Kalanick message, an Uber team in Europe began preparing an action plan for the following week. Drivers were urged to sign Uber-organised letters to the French president and prime minister to save their jobs; a mass petition of passengers was organised in defence of cheap rides.

A demonstration was planned, ostensibly by an independent drivers’ association – which was in effect run by Uber. Behind the scenes, the cab-hailing app’s executives fixed the time and place of the demo and wrote a full-page manifesto in the French media. News reports suggest only a few hundred drivers showed up.

French riot police push an overturned car as striking French taxi drivers demonstrate at Porte Maillot to block the traffic on the Paris ring road during a national protest against car-sharing service Uber, in Paris, June 2015
French riot police push an overturned car as striking French taxi drivers demonstrate in Paris, June 2015. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

Violence against Uber’s drivers and clients was by no means unique to France. The company often launched in new markets in violation of local regulations, using billions of dollars of venture capital to fund huge subsidies that undercut local traditional taxis, provoking a furious backlash.

MacGann had catalogued the violence across Europe in an email to San Francisco a year before the Paris protests. He wrote in January 2015 that in France alone, “80 drivers [have been] attacked physically, more than 10 ended up in hospital, depriving them of their incomes … Dozens of cars destroyed”.

One person who tried to take an Uber after a taxi driver told him he was on strike “had the crap beaten out of him” and needed facial reconstruction surgery. There was “increasing and credible intel of taxi entrapment and ambushing of Uber drivers”, MacGann wrote.

Uber’s boss in Italy had been “physically and verbally attacked constantly”. In Spain, MacGann reported “months of cars being burned and drivers being beaten up … managers frequently require bodyguards when speaking in public”.

Over time, Uber drivers were attacked in dozens of countries and even murdered by taxi drivers in South Africa, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

Hundreds of students take part in a march to protest against violence and for the killing of three students and an Uber driver on February 23, in Puebla, Mexico March 5, 2020
Hundreds of students take part in a march to protest about the killing of three students and an Uber driver in Mexico in March 2020. Photograph: Imelda Medina/Reuters

The attacks posed an obvious challenge for Uber, discouraging people from driving for the platform. On the other hand, some at the company seemed to believe it was benefiting Uber. As a senior communications manager in Europe emailed succinctly on 24 August 2015 after violent taxi protests against Uber drivers in Belgium: “Violence in France has led to regulatory momentum.”

At times, the script went like this: an Uber driver gets beaten, stabbed or otherwise attacked by taxi drivers; managers in an Uber country office alert national media in hopes of free anti-taxi publicity; lobbyists exploit the incident to secure meetings with ministers and government officials and promote favourable legislation.

In 2015, after Brussels taxi drivers organised to attack Uber drivers, the company’s general manager in Belgium observed: “Already one driver stepped forward to talk to the press: he had a full sack of flour thrown over him and passengers by taxi. He pressed charges and one taxi driver would have spent a night in jail … Good story.”


Similarly, after a Belgian Uber driver’s car was attacked by taxi drivers and its side mirror smashed, one of the company’s senior in-house lobbyists urged colleagues: “We need to use this in our favour.”

A similar approach was adopted in the Netherlands in March 2015 when masked men, reported to be angry taxi drivers, turned on Uber drivers with knuckle-dusters and a hammer. Uber staffers exchanged emails on a strategy to make use of the violence to win concessions from the Dutch government.

Driver victims were encouraged to file police reports, which were shared with De Telegraaf, the leading Dutch daily newspaper. They “will be published without our fingerprint on the front page tomorrow”, one manager wrote on 16 March.

The documents suggest executives were willing to let the violence continue for a while to build pressure on the government before the company presented a plan to allow it to temporarily bypass regulations. “We keep the violence narrative going for a few days, before we offer the solution,” the manager wrote.

When that narrative materialised in the Dutch press, MacGann replied: “Excellent work. This is exactly what we wanted and the timing is perfect.” Forwarding subsequent news coverage to other executives, he remarked: “Step one in the campaign, get the media to talk about taxi violence against.”

Uber’s David Plouffe speaks following a roundtable lunch to discuss economic opportunities for New Yorkers
Uber’s David Plouffe speaks following a roundtable lunch to discuss economic opportunities for New Yorkers. Photograph: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy

David Plouffe, a former campaign manager to Barack Obama who was then Uber’s vice-president of policy, was upfront about the company’s expectations on a trip to Cairo to defuse growing hostility to the platform there in 2016. “We’ve seen some violence around the world,” he said. “But that usually ends up expediting regulatory reform with the government.”

Lawyers for Whetstone stressed that she never condoned putting drivers at risk of violence. They said no Uber officials working under Whetstone sought to exploit violence against drivers, and she never oversaw such a policy. One of the incidents referred to occurred after she left the company.

“I joined Uber in 2015 because I loved the service, and believed in the promise of flexible work for drivers,” Whetstone said. “I consistently pushed back on Uber’s more aggressive business practices – which were established well before my arrival – with some success but resigned after 18 months due to significant, ongoing concerns about the company’s culture.”

MacGann said in a statement: “There is no excuse for how the company played with people’s lives. I am disgusted and ashamed that I was a party to the trivialisation of such violence.”


Kalanick’s spokesperson said any accusation he “directed, engaged in, or was involved in” taking advantage of violence against drivers was completely false.

Uber’s spokesperson acknowledged past mistakes in the company’s treatment of drivers. But she said no one, including Kalanick, wanted violence against Uber drivers.

“There is much our former CEO said nearly a decade ago that we would certainly not condone today,” she said. “But one thing we do know and feel strongly about is that no one at Uber has ever been happy about violence against a driver.”

She added that soon after succeeding Kalanick in 2017, Uber’s current chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, made safety one of the company’s top priorities.


Felicity Lawrence and Jon Henley

The GuardianTramp

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