Uber Papers: a scandal that never seems to end

An investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed in recent days more than 120,000 documents about Uber, revealing an unsuspected level of corruption, reopening the debate on the need for regulation of digital platforms.

What do the Uber Papers reveal and what consequences will it bring?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.


Uber is an application developed in San Francisco (California, USA), whose business model focused on improving cab service and urban transportation. In its early days it became an example of innovation and millions of people around the world began to use it for “safety” and “reliability”, becoming a global benchmark of digital transformation.

But while Uber initially enjoyed an unbeatable reputation, as its conflicts with the authorities intensified, the application began to resort to unorthodox and controversial methods, which were, over time, uncovered by the press and the authorities, and which not only made the credibility of the company decline, but in general of many of the ventures that emerged in Silicon Valley.

In 2014, CNN Business published a report in which it was evidenced that 177 Uber employees had intentionally ordered and canceled more than 5,000 services on Lyft’s competitor platform, seeking to reduce the profits and number of services of its competitors[1].

In November of that same year, The Guardian newspaper, revealed that Uber possessed a technology called “God Sight”, which allowed them to track the location of users for purposes other than trip monitoring, possibly violating the privacy of its customers[2].

In December 2016, again The Guardian revealed that a former employee of the company confessed that they frequently spied on famous personalities such as artists or politicians, through the Uber app, including the artist Beyoncé, whose activities would have been periodically monitored by Uber’s middle managers[3].

In 2017, The New York Times published a report on all the irregularities committed by Uber with the autonomous or driverless car project, including tests conducted without the permission of the San Francisco authorities, which put the lives of many people at risk. The technology presented failures to recognize red lights, cyclists and pedestrians, which led the California government to order the automatic recall of the cars and apply sanctions against the company.

The scandal of autonomous cars and Uber did not end there, as the Waymo brand, in charge of developing autonomous cars for Google, sued Uber accusing it of stealing its technology, evidencing that former employee Anthony Levandowski had stolen trade secrets for Uber [4].

For that same year (2017), Uber paid a fine of 20 million dollars to the Federal Trade Commission of the United States for misleading advertising, based on false earnings for drivers, who received much less money than advertised in 18 major cities in this country[5].

Also in 2017, it became known that Eric Alexander, a senior Uber executive, had illegally accessed a medical record of a female passenger in India who had been raped by an Uber driver, with the purpose of finding information that would discredit her[6]. The executive was fired and the woman sued Uber.

As if that were not enough, during this same year (2017), an investigation by The New York Times revealed that for years Uber has used a tool called Greyball, which allows it to deceive the authorities in those places where the application is prohibited.  According to the investigation, the application would have in its database the name of officials and people linked to governments, in charge of pursuing Uber drivers, so that when one of these people downloaded the application on their cell phone and requested a service, the software would show false data of non-existent vehicles and drivers, which of course never arrived[7].

The specialized magazine Retina, from the Spanish newspaper El País, defined Greyball as a small piece of code attached to the end of the Uber account that was activated when it detected a user suspected of belonging to the government, rendering the application useless [8].

The New York Times journalist Mike Isaac was the one who discovered the illegal use of the Greyball application and, based on hundreds of interviews, inquiries and field investigations, decided to publish the book: The Battle for Uber, which is now available in Spanish as well.

In an interview with Retina magazine, the New York Times journalist assured that:

“There were no controls on how to behave. Uber’s then CEO, Travis Kalanick, had no board or mentors to control him, Uber hired a hundred former CIA, FBI and NSA agents to help develop and implement Greyball around the world.

The program is just one extraordinary example of the extreme freedom that was experienced in the valley, in a period he delineates between the dotcom bubble at the turn of the century and the debacle that coincided with the election of Donald Trump.

A decade and a half elapsed between those two moments when Uber, Facebook, Google and Amazon became the largest companies in the world. At first they aroused curiosity, then fascination for their growth and finally fear for their size and criticism for their disregard for so many social fundamentals”.

The book, published by the New York Times journalist, is loaded with details and stories of the rise, transformation and decline of one of the fastest growing companies in history, with an estimated value of more than 60 billion euros.Pero si bien Uber ha sido uno de los ejemplos más citados de innovación en Silicon Valley, su credibilidad se encuentra profundamente golpeada y las suspicacias que genera se han hecho extensivas a muchas otras compañías de la región.

“The messianic missions of the company and its founders have waned,” he said. “At first they stuck their heads in the sand and said we didn’t get it. Now we’re in another period. They’re starting to realize that platforms can do a lot of bad things too,” says Isaac.

 Uber Papers

A joint journalistic investigation, conducted by the International Consortium of Journalists (ICIJ), and published in recent days by many media outlets around the world, especially The Guardian[9], compiled confidential files from the Uber transportation app, evidencing ethically questionable and potentially illegal tactics that the company used to catapult its frenetic global expansion.

Dubbed “The Uber Files” or the “Uber Papers,” the investigation by journalists from dozens of media outlets reveals that company representatives capitalized on the sometimes violent reaction of the cab trade against its drivers to gain support and evade regulatory authorities as it sought to conquer new markets.

In total, it involves 124,000 documents from between 2013 and 2017, initially obtained by the British newspaper The Guardian and then shared with the ICIJ.

The documents include exchanges of text messages and emails between executives. One of them pertains to co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick, who had to resign in 2017 over allegations of brutal management practices and multiple episodes of sexual and psychological harassment within the company.

“Violence guarantees success,” Kalanick wrote to another of the company’s leaders as he pushed for a counter-protest amid the 2016 Paris demonstrations against Uber’s arrival in the market[10].”

Uber’s rapid expansion was supported by driver subsidies and fare discounts that dented the cab trade, and “often without procuring licenses to operate as a cab or limousine service,” reported The Washington Post, one of the media outlets involved in the investigation[11].

Uber drivers across Europe faced violent retaliation from cab drivers who saw them as a threat to their livelihood. The investigation found that:

“In some instances, when drivers were attacked, Uber executives reacted quickly to capitalize” by seeking regulatory and public backing, says the Post[12].

According to The Guardian, Uber has adopted similar tactics in European countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, mobilizing drivers and encouraging them to report to the police when they were victims of violence, with the aim of using media coverage to gain prerogatives from the authorities [13].

The leaked messages suggest that Uber executives, at the same time, were under no illusions about the company’s violation of the law, and audios were even released in which one top company executive joked “we’re pirates” and another admitted “we’re fucking illegal.”

Mark MacGann, Uber’s former chief lobbyist for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, who voluntarily identified himself as the source of the leaked data, said, “It’s my duty to speak out and help governments and parliamentarians right some fundamental wrongs,” he said. “Morally, I had no choice in the matter.”

The trove of files includes emails, iMessages and WhatsApp messages, including often “frank and unvarnished” communications between Kalanick and his team of senior executives, according to reports published by The Guardian[14].

In one exchange, Kalanick dismissed other executives’ concerns that sending Uber drivers to a protest in France would put them at risk from cab drivers, stating, “I think it’s worth it,” he replied. “Violence guarantees success.”

The leak also contains texts between Kalanick and Emmanuel Macron, who secretly helped the company in France when he was Minister of Economy, allowing Uber frequent and direct access to him and his staff[15].

In a statement in response to the leak, Uber admitted “mistakes and missteps,” but said it had transformed since 2017 under the leadership of its current CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.

In Conclusion, The revelations promoted by the British newspaper The Guardian and supported by the international consortium of journalists, demonstrate once again that the dogma of “no digital regulation”, disguised as “net neutrality”, promotes the distortion of markets, affects free competition, generates monopolistic positions and, what is even more serious, favoring deliberately illegal actions, such as those developed by Uber between 2013 and 2017.

As I have referenced on multiple occasions in this space, digital platforms require urgent, intelligent, modern and fair regulation, ensuring the leveling of the playing field for all players in the value chain that are part of the digital ecosystem, which ultimately will result in guarantees for democracy and the global free market.

[1] Fink, E. (2014). Uber’s dirty tricks quantified: Rival counts 5,560 canceled rides. En CNN Business. Disponible en https://money.cnn.com/2014/08/11/technology/uber-fake-ride-requests-lyft/index.html
[2] The Guardian. (November 21, 2014). New York taxi drivers’ group calls for Uber to have license suspended. Disponible en https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/nov/21/new-york-taxi-drivers-group-uber-license-suspended
[3] Ibíd. (December 13, 2016). Uber employees ‘spide on ex–partners, politicians and Beyoncé. Disponible en https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/13/uber-employees-spying-ex-partners-politicians-beyonce
[4] The Guardian. (February 25, 2017). Google lawsuit could be a fatal setback for Uber’s self–driving dreams. Disponible en https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/25/uber-google-lawsuit-self-driving-car-threat-anthony-levandowski
[5] Ibíd. (January 20, 2017). Uber to pay $20m over claims it misled drivers over how much they would earn. Disponible en https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/19/uber-settlement-ftc-driver-earnings-car-leases
[6] Ibíd. (June 7, 2017). Uber executive fired amid reports he obtained rape victim’s medical récords. Disponible en https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/07/uber-executive-fired-eric-alexander-rape-case-india
[7] New York Times. (March 3, 2017). How Uber Deceives the Authorities Worldwide. Disponible en https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/technology/uber-greyball-program-evade-authorities.html?_r=0
[8] Pérez, J. (November 22, 2020). Uber y el fin de una era: el ocaso de un modelo de gestión despiadada. En Revista Retina, Diario El País, España. Disponible en https://elpais.com/retina/2020/11/20/talento/1605896688_380995.html
[9] The Guardian. (July 11, 2022). Uber broke laws, duped pólice and secretly lobbied governments, leak reveals. Disponible en https://www.theguardian.com/news/2022/jul/10/uber-files-leak-reveals-global-lobbying-campaign
[10] Ibíd.
[11] The Washington Post. (July 14, 2022). About the Uber Files investigation. Disponible en https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2022/uber-files-investigation/
[12] Ibíd.
[13] Op. Cit. (The Guardian, July 11, 2022)
[14] Íbid.
[15] Ibíd.