Uber whistleblower: “We were weaponising drivers”
The former Uber senior executive behind the Uber files has spoken out further on how the online taxi app “swindled” governments and “exploited employees” to gain its exponential global growth.
In his first in-person interview since the leak, Mark MacGann talked candidly about the behind-the-scenes of the Uber files, naming the actions Uber took as “fundamentally undemocratic, unfair, and certainly unorthodox.”
“I would say that I have never before in my career seen such unprecedented access to the very highest levels of government and the very highest levels of power,” MacGann told press at this year’s Web Summit in Lisbon.
MacGann began his role at Uber in 2014, when the ride-share app started to initiate its global scale-up. He worked as a senior executive for two years, lobbying and convincing governments around the world to take on Uber within their cities.
Uber had “an amazing sense of entitlement,” said MacGann. Even if it was for better or for worse, it was believed that Uber “knew better than governments.”
“The rules are bad and governments just needed to get out of the way.”
Earlier this year, a few years after MacGann’s resignation in 2016, the former senior executive met up with journalists from The Guardian on the shores of Lake Geneva with what is now called the ‘Uber files’ – two suitcases filled with hard drives, notepads, laptops, and iPhones exposing the murky tactics Uber used to persuade governments to relax laws, at the risk of driver safety.
In an on-stage interview at the Web Summit, MacGann detailed his realisation that Uber’s strategies were “unethical”: “There was this absolutist zeal, this libertarian streak that we knew better,” he explained. “So many people at the company believed in the mission. We thought we were on a noble purpose to try and improve cities, to try and make it safer and cheaper to get from A to B, and to try and build economic opportunity.”
However, “at some point, I realised that we were breaking rules, breaking laws, and we were actually breaking democracy itself.”
Nevertheless, Uber’s mantra was to “Uber on”, despite engaging in potentially illegal or unethical activities that jeopardised drivers’ wellbeing.
“We were told don’t take no for an answer, do whatever. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.”
“At the same time, drivers were getting fined, drivers were getting arrested, cars were getting impounded, drivers were getting beaten up, drivers were getting shot and killed.”
Swindling government authorities
Back in July, the leaked Uber files revealed how the company had convinced governments to rewrite and relax labour laws in order to help the app realise its app-based, gig-economy model of work.
One uncovered document suggested a planned $90 billion spend in 2016 on lobbying and public relations, with its strategy typically involving going to heads of city mayors, transport authorities, and straight to the seat of power.
Uber met up with, then-US Vice President and now-current US President, Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and George Osborne, the UK’s chancellor at the time.
“It was very schizophrenic,” MacGann said in the press conference.
“Whether it’s France or The Netherlands, [one part of their government] were telling us you’re breaking the rules, you need to stop and get out.”
“And then we had another part of the government, usually the highest level of government, that were saying ‘wow you’re so cool and you’re going to bring all these jobs and all this economic activity to my country.’”
“So I think we behaved badly and the governments behaved in such a naïve way.”
After the Uber files leaked, Emmanuel Macron defended that he was proud of Uber coming to France: “If they have created jobs in France, I’m very proud of that, and you know what, I’d do it again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”
In response, MacGann clarified that he “should not get into domestic politics in any country, but what I would say is I think there is a big misunderstanding.”
“We were always very careful to say that we would not create jobs because we didn’t want to have to pay the basic social protections for employees or workers,” he said.
In France, the multiple carpool apps create tough competition for taxi drivers, and “there are so many people barely making a living wage. So, I don’t think there’s a lot to be immensely proud of,” added MacGann.
Yet still, despite the leaks and backlash, Uber is continuing to spend money in order to block new labour laws. At the moment, “it’s continuing to funnel 10s of millions of dollars into lobbying against basic human rights, basic decency for workers in Europe.”
Plus, there’s a new federal rulemaking process in the United States, and “Uber has spent 10s of millions of dollars trying to block propositions so that people have the opportunity to be considered employees.”
On stage, MacGann was asked about former Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick’s, idea of staging an Uber driver counter-protest against traditional taxi drivers who were fighting to block Uber from entering their cities. At the time, Kalanick defended his idea despite being questioned by executives including MacGann by stating “violence guarantees success.”
“He meant exactly what he said,” confirmed MacGann. “It was all about getting media focus.”
Whilst traditional taxi drivers were grabbing media attention by setting cars on fire and blocking streets in cities such as Barcelona, Johannesburg, and Paris, Kalanick proposed a counter-protest “with no regard whatsoever for the well-being or the safety of [Uber] drivers,” according to MacGann and the Uber files.
“We were weaponising drivers,” MacGann confirmed.
And whilst Uber drivers were being harmed and threatened in the streets by protestors, Uber drivers were taking their anger out on MacGann himself.
“People were very very angry in so many parts of the world,” said MacGann. “I got tonnes of online abuse and death threats. I got a lot of physical violence at airports.”
As a rapidly growing start-up, MacGann pointed towards the investors for their lack of input when things started to go south for the safety of drivers.
“The thing is, I want to know where the investors were,” said MacGann, speaking on the anger amongst drivers.
“A responsible investor should go in and coach, give guidance, and standby,” he explained. “Don’t interfere unless there’s a real need for recourse.”
“So the silence from the investors was deafening when people were being put out onto the streets and getting attacked.”
Another major breakthrough from the Uber files was Uber’s ‘kill switch’.
The kill switch, placed in Uber offices around the world, would limit police access to the company’s data, such as lists of drivers, in the event of a police raid.
“Please hit the kill switch ASAP,” Kalanick ordered in one email shared by The Washington Post. “Access must be shut down in AMS,” he sent, referring to the Amsterdam office.
The kill switch had been used in The Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, India, Romania, Hungary, and at least three times in France. Uber states now that the kill switch was removed in 2017, when the new chief executive, Dara Khasrowshahi, took over Kalanick’s position.
When questioned on his complicity in being aware of the kill switch, and wanting to expose it now, MacGainn admitted: “Hindsight is a wonderful tool.”
“We were running around from country to country, city to city, putting out fires,” he said. “My colleagues were getting arrested and put in prison. Some of the guys, including people who have risen to the very top of Uber today, were getting arrested in Paris and put in prison.”
“That was not the sort of message we were telling the public about,” he confessed.
“If you questioned the company practices you were viewed with suspicion,” MacGann added. “We had this beautiful code of ethics as far back as February 2014, and we paid total lip service to it.”
“So yeah, I could have spoken up more, but I would have been told ‘There’s the door, don’t let it hit you on the way out,’” MacGann told. “Ultimately, I finally resigned.”
As for now, MacGann hopes and wants to believe that Uber has “changed its culture.”
At the time, “it was rotten to the core, but I do believe the new executive team has done a lot of good.”
Mark MacGann has since taken to his name as Uber whistleblower, although admitted that he’d like to go back to his former life, by publicly lobbying for new regulations in big tech.
Last month, MacGann made a speech to MEPs at the European Parliament to “defend the interests of drivers and platform workers everywhere.” He made the testimony with the hope that MEPs would better understand “why giving disproportionate power in legislation to huge tech platform risks shattering the social justice [the European Parliament] have fought hard to establish and defend,” he stated in his testimony.
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