Uber paid academics six-figure sums for research to feed to the media

High-profile professors in Europe and the US were engaged as part of lobbying campaign, leak shows

Uber paid high-profile academics in Europe and the US hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce reports that could be used as part of the company’s lobbying campaign.

The Uber files, a cache of thousands of confidential documents leaked to the Guardian, reveal lucrative deals with several leading academics who were paid to publish research on the benefits of its economic model. The reports were commissioned as Uber wrestled with regulators in key cities around the world.

University economists were targeted in France and Germany where enforcement by the authorities was increasingly fierce in 2014-15.

One report by a French academic, who asked for a €100,000 consultancy fee, was cited in a 2016 Financial Times report as evidence that Uber was a “route out of the French banlieues”, delighting Uber executives.

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."

Using techniques common in party political campaigns, Uber targeted academics and thinktanks to help it construct a positive narrative, namely that it created well-paid jobs that drivers liked, delivered cheap transport to consumers and boosted productivity.

Documents show how its lobbyists planned to use academic research as part of a production line of political ammunition that could be fed to politicians and the media.

The aim was to use the research to increase pressure for changing the rules Uber was evading. While Uber’s involvement in reports was mentioned, leaked files expose how it wanted to use academics’ work and their reputations to further its aims, and how much it was prepared to pay them.

In France, the €100,000 consultancy arrangement was negotiated with a rising star of university economics, Prof Augustin Landier of the Toulouse School of Economics. Landier agreed to produce a report that he described in emails to Uber’s policy and communications team as “actionable for direct PR to prove Uber’s positive economic role”.

Landier proposed collaborating with David Thesmar, another high-profile professor from France’s top business school, École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris (HEC).

In discussions in February 2015, Uber executives noted that although the price was high, it was worth it, especially if they worked on the report’s messages “to ensure it’s not presented in a potentially negative light”.

The report came amid intense debate about job losses caused by Uber, with Emmanuel Macron, who was then France’s economy minister, trying to force through economic changes.

An Uber policy team member wrote at the time that “a quantified validation of the new type of work Uber creates in Europe, especially when conducted by an economist of Landier’s renowned stature, would help us tremendously”.

Scholars were excited about Uber’s data because it gave them rare real-time evidence about the effect of prices on markets – one of the key issues among liberal economists arguing for free markets.

Uber says opening its data to researchers has provided important insights into the changing nature of work and mobility
Uber says opening its data to researchers has provided important insights into the changing nature of work and mobility. Photograph: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

In return for the consultancy fee, Landier also wanted to produce a separate unpaid study using Uber data. The leak shows Uber executives were concerned that would mean “we lose editorial control”, but a senior staffer concluded: “We see low risk here because we can work with Landier on framing the study and we also decide what data we share with him.”

The day before the publication of Landier and Thesmar’s report in March 2016, the FT story citing it appeared. “Ride-hailing apps have created jobs for Paris’s poorer youth, but a regulatory clampdown looms,” the article said.

Thesmar was quoted in the piece saying that Uber was a “social gamechanger”.

The report had a third co-author, Daniel Szomoru, an internal Uber economist. While his employment and the academic consultancy arrangement with Uber were acknowledged in a footnote, details of the fee were not. Neither Szomoru nor the fact the report was paid for by Uber were mentioned in the FT piece.

Some of the key qualifiers in the report did not appear in press coverage – including the academics’ conclusion that Uber drivers who did not make good money tended to drop off the platform.

The report detailed how these drivers received “payouts” on average of €19.90 an hour. But that did not factor in the substantial costs that drivers have to pay – such as car hire, insurance and fuel – that had to be deducted from this average “payout” before earnings could be calculated. In the FT’s story, which was retweeted by Landier and others, this became simply: “Most earn €20 an hour, more than twice the minimum wage.”

Uber was thrilled with the FT story. “Wow!” wrote one person, congratulating the team who “landed it”.

The FT said its article was based on its own extensive field reporting that covered the downsides of driving for Uber, including low pay, as well as the benefits, and that it had not been proactively approached or briefed by Uber. It quoted experts other than Thesmar and made clear his work was based on Uber data, and it stood by its reporting, a spokesperson said.

Landier and Thesmar said their paid consultancy for Uber was declared and transparent. They declined to comment further.


Hubert Horan is a transportation expert who has been a long-term critic of Uber’s model and has published for the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center on Uber’s use of academics in the US. He said academics generally ignored the fact that Uber was spending billions of dollars of investor cash to subsidise both drivers and passengers and that “payouts” to drivers were not the same as income. Claims about the quality of jobs or prices were therefore unsustainable, he argued.

“Uber used techniques that had proven successful in partisan political settings to create the widespread belief that a company that has lost over £20bn was highly innovative and created huge benefits for consumers and cities,” he said. “It became an unstoppable PR juggernaut.”

When discussing a quick €10,000 commission for another French economist, Nicolas Bouzou, described as having “high potential to leverage this work in the mainstream media”, Uber executives agreed that organising this through a thinktank would “add credibility to the analysis” . They also talked about “milking” the Landier report at the same time.

Bouzou published his report for Uber in January 2016. He said that the report made no claim to be an academic study and the Uber funding was declared. He acknowledged that the reliability of data from corporate clients was “for us a major risk”, but said he never framed his reports to suit a client’s marketing needs.

Prof Justus Haucap.
Prof Justus Haucap. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

In Germany, where authorities were clamping down on Uber’s breaches of regulations in 2014, Prof Justus Haucap, a leading economist at Düsseldorf University’s Institute for Competition Economics (DICE), agreed to produce a study on “consumer benefits from a liberalisation of the German taxi market”.

The study was conducted in collaboration with a consultancy arm of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), described by Uber executives in internal emails as “the thinktank that has greatest sway with the current [German] government”, for what the leak suggested was a fee of €48,000 plus VAT.

The academics were expected to help promote the research at events and in the press, a leaked service agreement and invoices suggest.

Haucap launched the report at events for influencers and politicians in Berlin.

Haucap, his consultancy firm DICE Consult and DIW all said that while the data was provided by Uber, the study met rigorous independent, scientific standards and was not predetermined by Uber. They added that it was identified as a paid report for Uber.


One of the first deals sealed by Uber with top academics was with Prof Alan Krueger at Princeton University in the US in 2015. Krueger had been Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser and was famous as an authority on raising the legal minimum wage, so held particular influence when it came to advocating for Uber’s impact on employment.

The Uber files reveal for the first time that he was paid about $100,000 for a study that was widely quoted in support of Uber as a creator of good jobs precisely because it operated outside the rules. Internal Uber emails note that he was “helpful with the press”.

The study subsequently attracted controversy. Krueger, who died in 2019, acknowledged his paid consultancy work for Uber but never said how much he had been paid. Other academics said its conclusions could not be peer-reviewed because its data was not openly shared.

Uber said that opening its data to researchers provided important insights into the changing nature of work and mobility, and that where it paid academics the relationship was always disclosed. The Landier and Thesmar report made clear that the “payout” figures it gave did not take drivers’ costs into account, it said, adding that Uber datasets were available to people wanting to review research if they signed a data use agreement.

• This article was amended on 13 July 2022. An earlier version incorrectly described Hubert Horan as an economist at the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center.


Felicity Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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