The release of the Uber files has prompted a frenzy of reaction around the world, piling pressure on senior politicians, fuelling calls for a crackdown on corporate lobbying and drawing outrage from groups including traditional taxi drivers.
The fuse was lit with the publication of revelations from a trove of more than 124,000 documents about Uber spanning from 2013 to 2017, leaked to the Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and international media.
The files, leaked by whistleblower Mark MacGann, laid bare how Uber flouted laws, duped police, exploited violence against drivers, and secretly lobbied governments during its aggressive global expansion.
Uber has said that it “has not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values”, distancing the modern-day company from its past deeds.
But the political, regulatory and public response to the Uber files is still unfolding and Uber – not to mention the people who helped its growth – are coming under intense scrutiny in some of the world’s largest economies and Uber’s most important markets.
Details of how President Emmanuel Macron leapt to the aid of Uber, as it lobbied for a way into France’s taxi sector, have led to calls from across the political spectrum for a parliamentary inquiry.
Opposition politicians and the leftwing CGT trade union seized on reports of secret undeclared meetings and the promise of a “deal” brokered by Macron inside the government to help Uber.
One parliamentarian described the revelations as a “state scandal”, amid calls from the hard left and the far right for Macron, who is already under intense pressure, to face an official inquiry from a parliamentary committee.
Macron has been defiant, saying he would “do it again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow”.
The newly appointed French minister of digital affairs, Jean-Noël Barrot, is expected to recuse himself from Uber-related matters , multiple sources reported, because his sister Hélène Barrot is Uber’s European communications director.
“Investigations by private detectives into Brussels ministers, repeated violations of the sector’s regulations, destruction of data, obstruction of justice, possible tax fraud, screen companies to circumvent Brussels legislation […] are all an attack on our rule of law and our democracy. ”
Those were the words of Ridouane Chahid, leader of Belgium’s Socialist party PS, which has proposed a parliamentary inquiry.
Cab drivers were already protesting about plans for Uber-friendly deregulation before the leak emerged. In recent demonstrations in Naples, Milan and Rome, drivers carried banners that read “Fuck you Uber” and set off fireworks.
Dutch deputy minister of finance, Marnix van Rij, has said he wants to investigate whether the Dutch tax authorities violated international agreements when dealing with Uber.
A spokesperson for the European Commission has said the EC will write to Neelie Kroes, its former vice-president, after two dozen European politicians called for an inquiry into suggestions she secretly helped Uber lobby the Netherlands prime minister, Mark Rutte, and a string of other national Dutch politicians.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said there should be greater transparency around corporate lobbying, after the Uber files revealed that the company tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the Fine Gael-led coalition in 2015 and 2016 to loosen taxi regulations.
Barcelona’s leftwing mayor, Ada Colau, welcomed the revelations contained in the Uber files, saying they had served to “unmask” the company.
She told El País that the company had tried to “disguise themselves as innovators and small freelancers” when they had actually been “crooks”. Yolanda Díaz, Spain’s second deputy prime minister and labour minister, said the leak was a matter of “utmost seriousness”.
In Finland, the Uber files have created a political scandal after it emerged that former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb met Uber executives several times while serving as PM and finance minister. The company was lobbying to change Finland’s longstanding taxi regulations. In the end, Stubb resigned as prime minister in 2015 after losing his position as chairman of the Coalition party. There is no suggestion that Uber’s lobbying was successful.
German MEP Daniel Freund wrote to the European parliament president, Roberta Metsola, asking him to investigate Uber’s lobbying practices of in Brussels.
European parliament politicians had already been working on a proposal that would reclassify millions of gig economy workers as employees, rather than independent contractors, conferring rights such as minimum pay. Amid debate about how the final proposals should look, the Uber files have given renewed impetus to leftwing factions pushing for stronger labour laws, according to a report in Politico.
In India, one of the locations where Uber used a “kill switch” to cut access to company data during raids by the authorities, the law could change in response to revelations about Uber. The Indian Express reported that the government is considering new rules.
“It has been fairly obvious to most people that big tech platforms have been using technology to game the system and consumers both, and have evaded scrutiny by constantly covering themselves with innovations,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the minister for electronics and IT.
Trade unions have also demanded action. The Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT) filed a “public interest litigation” in the supreme court, calling for new laws to protect gig economy workers.
The majority of questionable behaviour revealed by the Uber files took place outside the UK but Transport for London has said it is investigating claims that MacGann notified it of concerns about Uber in 2020 but was ignored.
Most of the revelations in the Uber files relate to Europe but they have caught the attention of American organisations lobbying for the rights of gig workers. Referring to concerns about driver safety, Gig Workers Rising wrote: “The story these documents reveal is horrific: Uber appears to have encouraged drivers to put themselves in dangerous situations when it benefited their bottom line.”