Uber, mainly involved in private mobility services, has now become a verbal equivalent to a cab. With a global presence in 72 countries with 10500 cities, Uber Technologies Incorporated spread its business in services like vehicle for hire, food delivery, package delivery, courier, and freight transport. With a market share of about 35 per cent, Uber India continues to challenge the domestic car rental company, OLA. Founded in 2009, Uber is in the limelight due to its notorious business activities and use of technologies in its business to tweak the local laws and policies.
The Uber Files
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has recently released the dark business secrets of the cab giant. Investigating the various emails, documents, and sources, the ICIJ concludes that “the tech giant won access to world leaders, cosied up to oligarchs and dodged taxes amid chaotic global expansion” and influenced laws, authorities and governments using the advanced technological tools.
The main source of The Uber Files has been Mark MacGann, a former employee of the company from 2014 to 2016. A career lobbyist provided The Guardian with 124000 companies’ files, records, and emails revealing the dark secrets of Uber Businesses around the world.
For example, the tweaking and lobbying in France started in mid-2015, when taxi drivers in France created a huge uproar over Uber’s systematic effort to bypass the labour law and endangering the livelihood of the conventional taxi drivers. After the continuous strikes and clash, Uber’s business in France was suspended and then, “Uber’s Chief European lobbyist sought help from a young French minister, Emmanuel Macron.” Thereafter, despite the clashes and suspension of business, authorities revised the ban order.
There are multiple incidents like Uber files, when the company has played with the Indian laws and using technological advancement it continues to evade the authorities. Listing out the key “stakeholders” names of bureaucrats and politicians, the company signed dozens of agreements and Memorandum of Understanding with local authorities, to influence domestic policies.
For instance, when an Uber driver was held for the rape of a 27 years old woman on 5 December 2014 in Delhi, which subsequently led to a ban on Uber in the national capital, Uber’s higher authorities guided the local representatives to “shift the blame to flawed Indian background checks.”
Mark MacGann, then Uber’s Head of Public Policy for Europe and the Middle East wrote in December, “We’re in crisis talks right now and the media is blazing…The Indian driver was indeed licensed, and the weakness/flaw appears to be in the local licensing scheme… the view in the US is that we can expect inquiries across our markets on the issue of background checks, in the light of what has happened in India”.
A year after the launch of its business in India, Uber’s Asia head, Allen Penn emailed titled “dealing with regulatory issues” to its local employees. It states, “We will likely have both local and national issues in almost every city in India for the rest of your tenure at Uber… Don’t talk to the Government or folks close to the Government unless you have specifically discussed with Jordan (Uber’s Head of Public Policy for Asia)… we will generally stall, be unresponsive, and often say no to what they want. This is how we operate and it’s nearly always the best. Early quick meetings set us up for failure. Get comfortable with that approach… don’t let it distract you from your mission to dominate the market”, reported The Indian Express.
Further, to deal with raids and other authorities, they installed software called ‘Kill Switch”, which they use to instantly close down data for the local authorities and evade the administration of the law.
After the rape case in December 2014, Indian authorities became vigilant of Uber’s businesses in India and continued to follow their tax compliances. But using the “Kill Switch”, the company remained untouched by the authorities. Describing its dirty tricks to evade the tax authorities, Uber Manager, Rob van der Woude states in an email conversation, “What we did in India is having the city team be as cooperative as possible and have BV (the company in the Netherlands) take the heat. E.g. whenever the local team was called to provide the information, we shut them down from the system making it practically impossible for them to give out any info despite their willingness to do so. At the same time, we kept directing the authorities to talk to BV representatives instead.”
Following the tax evasion policies, it slashed its corporate income tax bill from $35 million to $8 million for the years 2018, 2019, and 2020, according to financial statements. According to a report by the Tax Justice Network, India loses about $16 billion to corporate tax avoidance and other tax evasions every year.
There are multiple instances where Uber used the dirty technique of technology and policies to evade legal compliances and behaved like a tech-enabled criminal. The company used its high-end software like ‘kill switch’ to ‘underground’ its secret documents and lobbied hard to influence the local policies.
In response to the release of The Uber Files, Jill Hazelbaker, Uber spokesperson has acknowledged the ‘mistakes’ in a letter to ICIJ. The statement says, “There has been no shortage of reporting on Uber’s mistakes prior to 2017. Thousands of stories have been published, multiple books have been written, there’s even been a TV series”.
“Five years ago, those mistakes culminated in one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America. That reckoning led to an enormous amount of public scrutiny, a number of high-profile lawsuits, multiple government investigations, and the termination of several serious executives”, the statement further said.
Claiming to be a reformed company, she said, “When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean literally: 90 percent of current Uber employees joined after Dara became CEO….We’ve moved from an era of confrontation to one of collaboration, demonstrating a willingness to come to the table and find common ground with former opponents, including labour unions and taxi companies”.
Uber started as a cab company and has now become a data mining company that influences the customers and authorities for their benefit. Whatever explanation they give for their misdeeds, the company’s foundational culture remains the same. Using advanced technologies, they secured the private and influential data of the company. They weaponised technology for their benefit and earned enormous profits by criminally evading tax laws. A thorough investigation should be launched against the company with the help of technical experts to check on data concerning the compliances and recovery claims should be asked retrospectively.
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