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Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Revealed: How Uber took the systems for a ride, used its technology to get past the law

AFTER tracking the money flows of the wealthy into offshore tax havens, it is now about a tech giant that, combining commercial aggression and customer convenience, has revamped the taxi around the world: Uber.

In its eighth collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), Indian Express spent four months investigating The Uber Files, a cache of 124,000 internal emails, text messages and documents from within Uber.

Obtained by The Guardian and shared with ICIJ and a global consortium of newsrooms in 30 countries, including The Washington Post and BBC, these records tell the untold story of how a shaky Silicon Valley start-up became a global media giant. transportation of $44 billion with operations today in 72 countries—and counting.

And how it used stealth technology to bypass regulators; took advantage of an extensive lobby network; aggressively cut costs as it navigated loopholes in law and regulation.

Those records cover 2013-2017, the period when the company, led by its flamboyant and brash co-founder, Travis Kalanick, propelled its taxi service from one world market to another.

Kalanick responded to the ICIJ’s revelations through his spokesman, Devon Spurgeon, in his signature style: “When Kalanick co-founded Uber in 2009, he and the rest of the team pioneered an industry that has now become a verb. Doing so required a change in the status quo, as Uber has become a serious competitor in an industry where competition has historically been prohibited.”

Since launching the services in 2013, Uber has found India to be one of its fastest growing markets – around 6 lakh drivers driving today in more than 100 cities with an urban workforce spread across cities with irregular public transport and services. restricted taxi.

Uber’s strategy was summed up in an email that Uber’s then-head of Asia, Allen Penn, wrote to the India team in August 2014. in almost every city in India… This is life running a business at Uber,” he wrote.

The filings detail Uber’s disagreements with a number of Indian regulatory authorities, including the GST and Income Tax Departments, as well as Consumer Forums, the Reserve Bank of India and the Service Tax Department.

In fact, in September 2014, Uber prepared a presentation for its team using India as a case study to address Service Tax issues. “The authorities want Uber to open its books, otherwise we are facilitating fraud,” reads a slide in a PowerPoint presentation that is part of the records now revealed.

Shortly after, in December 2014, the crisis hit the company after the rape of a 25-year-old passenger in New Delhi in an Uber car by the driver.

Dozens of internal emails show that even as red flags were being raised over the Delhi government-imposed ban, top executives directly blamed “flawed” licensing systems in India for letting the criminal record of the accused driver slip away.

Uber was in a panic and amidst a frenzied damage control, Nairi Hourdajian, then head of Uber’s communications unit, wrote in an email to his colleague on December 11, 2014, just six days after the rape: “Remember You realize that not everything is in your control, and that sometimes we get in trouble because, well, we’re just illegal.”

An investigation by The Indian Express shows that critical elements of the new safety features that Uber bragged about after the New Delhi rape incident are not yet in place. Example: the “panic button” that every Uber taxi – like buses and public transport taxis – must be equipped with has not yet been integrated into the systems of the Delhi Police and the State Department of Transport, even six years after the rape.

Much has been said about the “nasty” Uber deployed during Kalanick’s tenure, and The Uber Files dramatically expands the instances and circumstances of its use: there are details of how the company used tools like “greyball” and “geofencing” to keep rides safe. Uber away from prying cops and government officials.

Significantly, there are 13 cases discovered in the archives regarding the ‘Kill Switch’ deployment in various countries – an internal label for a process that shuts down local systems to protect them from any investigation. In fact, in six cases, the records reveal, the ‘Kill Switch’ was used even as regulators’ raids were underway at Uber’s offices.

A private email from a top Uber executive from February 2015 (in the context of anticipated tax attacks in Belgium) details the modus operandi that Uber used for India: how local staff appeared to cooperate with Indian authorities, even when they were actually “turned off”. ” — courtesy of ‘Kill Switch’ — by Uber’s headquarters.

Uber is trying to put many of these controversies behind it, and in response to questions sent to the company’s India boss, Prabhjeet Singh, its spokesperson responded: The laws have not conceived of app-based ridesharing as an option. We have long championed rules and regulations that reflect changing technology and the interests of cities and our customers – passengers and drivers. As a company that defines the category, we applaud and support progressive regulatory changes that are good for passengers, drivers and cities.”

Around the world, the Uber Archives also underlines the near-military precision with which Uber has, over the years, made friends in high places.

The company, with the help of a consultancy, prepared a list of more than 1,850 “stakeholders” from different countries, with whom its top echelons could seek meetings. The “stakeholders” were a mixed club: civil servants, bureaucrats, think tank members and transport experts.

Among Uber’s “close” friends, the records show, was Emmanuel Macron, who, as then-minister to France, was clearly identified as an “ally” of Uber. There are several exchanges between Macron and top Uber executives, including Kalanick.

The company also courted oligarchs who were close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some of the oligarchs that appear in the data were already sanctioned after the invasion of Ukraine.

Uber hired former Obama adviser David Plouffe (he visited India in February 2016 and met three chief ministers) as head of the company’s global brand in 2014 and worked there until 2017.

Records show that Plouffe participated in internal email discussions about the use of the ‘Kill Switch’ during attacks on two occasions.

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