The Guardian • Issue #2016

Leaked files reveal the extent of Uber’s aggressive government influence

Photo: Yuya Tamai – (CC BY 2.0)

Documents, text messages and emails leaked from ridesharing giant Uber have revealed the extent of the company’s influence on politicians, journalists and corporate executives.

In the rapid period of expansion from 2013 to 2017, Uber set up operations in eighty-two countries, breaking existing laws governing taxi permits, and then aggressively lobbying governments to receive preferential treatment.

The files were leaked by ex-lobbyist Mark MacGann, who worked for Uber from 2014 to 2016, and managed relations with governments to bend laws and evade transport regulations, often exploiting attacks on Uber drivers to gain public sympathy.

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

In Australia, Uber launched in 2012, yet was not officially legal in all states until 2016. Competing rideshare firms were reluctant to operate outside the law, and traditional taxis were limited in their profitability by expensive licences, running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This gave Uber an opportunity to undercut the market, establish a monopoly, and raise prices once competition had disappeared.

The heavy lobbying Uber undertook required huge contact lists and access to the highest levels of government. Documents obtained by the Internation Consortium of Investigative Journalists from Mark MacGann detail Uber’s meetings, thirty-four meetings with European Commission Officials, nineteen meetings with ministers, and seven meetings with presidents or prime ministers, among them French President Emanual Macron, who removed barriers to the service in the face of protests from taxi drivers in 2015.

Within Australia, Uber has been involved in numerous court battles with the Transport Workers’ Union, seeking to classify drivers as “independent contractors” instead of employees, which allows the company to deny benefits such as leave, workers’ compensation and superannuation. The company’s “Uber Eats” food delivery service has led to three deaths in 2020 alone.

The Australian operations of the San Francisco-based company are backed by lobbying firm Richardson Coutts, founded by former Labor staffer John Richardson and former Liberal staffer Stephen Coutts. This access to both sides of politics has allowed Uber to capture the narrative around ridesharing in Australia, exalting the “sharing economy” and “flexible work.” In reality, fares are set by the company, not the drivers, and Uber’s business model means drivers are responsible for all costs of their vehicle. The “surge-price” algorithm sets prices to maximise profit, leading to incidents such as that of the 2014 Martin Place terror attack, where terrified Sydney residents were charged four times the usual rate for a ride out of the CBD.

The Silicon Valley success story is not one of free-market progress, nor is their doctrine of “move fast and break things” one of genuine innovation. The Big Tech business model is to exploit legal loopholes, lean on regulators, and entrench their economic advantage, covered over with slick minimalistic advertising.

When companies like Uber can write their own laws, the system is against the Australian worker.

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