On July 10, The Guardian broke news of the Uber Files — a leak of 124,000 documents from Uber’s former head of policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Mark MacGann, that tracks the company’s period of unprecedented global growth between 2013 and 2017. The Guardian worked with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to disseminate the files to 42 other international publications, including The Washington Post. The documents lay out how the company’s deep pockets during this era — Uber’s lobbying and PR budget was $90 million in 2016 alone — was used to secretly influence politicians, oligarchs, and regulators around the world, and even sometimes to break local laws.
Dozens of stories about the contents of the leak have been published since the documents surfaced. Rest of World compiled the most glaring findings from the leak concerning Uber’s operations in non-Western countries, including South Africa, India, Nigeria, and Russia. [Editor’s note: Rest of World’s founder and CEO, Sophie Schmidt, previously worked as a public policy and communications manager for Uber between 2015 and 2018].
Uber attempted to scale its operations in South Africa knowing full well that the tactics it was using increased physical risks to drivers, according to reporting by The Washington Post. Documents reveal that Uber forced drivers to accept cash payments and gradually reduce driver commissions, to incentivize drivers to work longer hours and accept rides in areas and at times that put them at a higher risk of robbery and assault.
Early subsidies lured unemployed and underemployed workers in Cape Town and Johannesburg into driving for the service with the promise of upward mobility. One 2015 presentation reviewed by The Washington Post indicated Uber was profitable just 14 months after it launched in Johannesburg, making it the city that turned the fastest profit for Uber, outside the United States. Cape Town turned profitable soon after.
But by the end of 2015, with many drivers financially dependent on the service, the company chose to up the company’s cut of commissions from 20% to 25%.
One former driver told The Washington Post that in his third year of driving with Uber, his income had dropped to about 30% of the first year, and he was regularly earning less than $1 per hour. Many drivers in South Africa had financed their car rentals through an Uber partnership with a local bank, locking them into debt and forcing them to continue driving for the service to make payments.
As it became more difficult to earn a living driving for Uber, the physical risks of the job increased. Uber started allowing cash payments in 2016, in order to bring new customers without bank accounts or credit onto the app, a move that prompted a spike in robberies. Gangs began calling Uber drivers, whom they knew had cash on hand, in order to rob them. Uber knew that allowing cash payments would pose a physical risk to drivers: just two years earlier, the company had lobbied the South African government to ban cash payments from ride-hailing, on the grounds it was a risk to their drivers.
The Washington Post spoke to multiple former drivers who left the service after being beaten and even hospitalized from these robberies. In 2016 and 2017, taxi drivers angry at Uber’s tactics and success in the market also began kidnapping Uber drivers and set several of their cars on fire with the drivers still inside. One driver died from their burn injuries.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Uber said it now allows drivers in South Africa to decline cash payments, has built a button in-app that calls emergency services, and is more transparent about passenger destinations.
The leak included documents about the 2014 case of a driver raping a passenger in New Delhi, which sparked protests of the company and a seven-month ban of its operations in Delhi. A review of the files by The Indian Express shows that Uber repeatedly shifted blame for the incident to the Indian government and its commercial licensing system, rather than its own vetting system.
“We had done what was required in terms of the Indian regulations. However, it’s clear the checks required for a driver to obtain a commercial license from the authorities now appear to be insufficient as it appears the accused also had some previous rape allegations, which the Delhi police check did not identify,” wrote Niall Wass, Uber’s senior vice president for Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Africa at the time.
At one point, Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick said to another executive that the case could be a “sabotage attempt” by Ola, Uber’s largest ride-sharing competitor in the country. The company also secretly acquired the survivor’s medical records. The survivor later sued Uber for defamation, on the grounds it had implied publicly that the case was fabricated to hurt the company’s reputation.
As a result of the attack, Uber committed to introducing a “panic button” in every Indian Uber vehicle. That plan was never fully executed, and the buttons are still not in place in vehicles in India, according to The Indian Express.
India was also one of the countries in which Uber deployed its “kill switch,” a tool that allowed Uber’s San Francisco headquarters to remotely cut off all access from an international office to Uber’s internal systems, according to multiple outlets, including The Indian Express. The Uber Files revealed that this tool was ordered to be used repeatedly around the world when local authorities or regulators raided Uber’s offices, impeding their ability to access company files and information.
Following a raid on Uber’s New Delhi office two months after the 2014 rape case, an email sent by Uber manager Rob van der Woude narrated the incident. “What we did in India is have the city team be as cooperative as possible and have BV (the company in 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,” he wrote.
“Uber does not have a ‘kill switch’ designed to thwart regulatory inquiries anywhere in the world and has not since Dara [Khosrowshahi] became CEO in 2017,” Uber spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker wrote in a statement to the ICIJ.
Despite its continued run-ins with Indian regulators, including the central bank, for not complying with credit card transaction laws and evading service tax fees, executives pushed ahead in India. “Embrace the chaos. It means you’re doing something meaningful,” Allen Penn, the former head of Uber’s Asia-Pacific operations wrote in a memo to Indian staffers in 2014.
In a message to colleagues in 2014, sent as the scandal in India was unfolding, Uber’s former director of global communication Nairi Hourdajian wrote: “Sometimes we have problems because, well, we’re just fucking illegal.”
When confronted with accusations of tax avoidance by local regulatory authorities — particularly its use of tax havens in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands — in multiple instances, Uber shifted the spotlight away from Uber’s revenue and onto taxation of its drivers, including in Nigeria, according to reporting from the ICIJ.
In 2012, Uber had established a corporate structure that sent customer payments in New Delhi, Lagos, London, and hundreds of cities around the world to a Dutch company called Uber BV. Much of the corporate revenue was then routed to Uber’s shell company in Bermuda, where there is no corporate income tax.
Tax officials around the world struggled to track the tax liability of local drivers, since their payments were routed through the Netherlands. Emails reviewed by the ICIJ documented Uber executives telling regional managers to discuss “solutions” with local governments that would encourage or require drivers to pay taxes, in order to sidestep a crackdown on Uber’s own tax evasion.
A 2016 memo with officials in Nigeria showed the strategy at work, according to reporting from the ICIJ. “We met with Tax Authorities in Lagos who lauded our efforts at ensuring [drivers’] tax compliance, and shifted their focus from Uber ‘evading tax’ to working together to ensure [drivers’] compliance,” a senior policy officer wrote at the time.
The Centre for International Corporate Tax, Accountability and Research estimates that in 2019 alone Uber avoided $556 million in corporate tax filings around the world.
Starting in 2013, Uber made a push into Russia, hoping to gain a foothold in a dozen of the country’s most populous cities. To do so, Uber developed close relationships with Putin-adjacent oligarchs and invested large sums of money into lobbying efforts, according to The Washington Post.
One of Uber’s most influential partners in Russia was Sberbank, which helped the company avoid demands by Moscow authorities that all Uber drivers use yellow cars. The head of Sberbank, Herman Gref, was a former Putin economic minister and introduced Uber to the Moscow mayor. At a luxurious dinner with government officials and tech executives during a trip to Russia in 2016, former CEO Travis Kalanick was seated across from Gref.
In early 2016, Uber received $200 million from the investment firm LetterOne, which is owned by the Russian oligarchs Petr Aven and Mikhail Fridman. An additional unpublicized $50 million deal came in the form of warrants, a kind of security that allowed LetterOne to buy stock at better prices, in exchange for helping aid Uber’s growth in Russia, according to reporting by The Washington Post. While those associated with LetterOne deny ever lobbying directly for the company, email exchanges with Uber included in the leak show executives crediting LetterOne and Sberbank for helping them secure an operating deal in Moscow.
LetterOne also helped negotiate a contract between Uber and a lobbyist for the Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, that cost up to $650,000. The lobbyist was tasked with helping pass a law that would limit the regulatory power of regional authorities over the taxi industry. Concerns over the possible tactics of the lobbyist led the company to mandate anti-corruption training in the contract. The law ultimately never passed the Duma.
In 2017, Uber signed a joint venture with its largest competitor in Russia, Yandex, marking the end of its push into the country. Though The Washington Post clarifies that there is no evidence Uber violated sanctions at the time, most of Uber’s former associates in Russia are now under sanctions by the U.S. and EU, following the invasion of Ukraine.