There was a sense of panic that had gripped Uber’s top bosses following the rape of a woman by a driver of the app-based ride-hailing company, leaked emails and confidential records accessed by The Indian Express has revealed. However, the company’s response to the horrific crime was to try and shift the blame on the Indian authorities, including the Delhi police. Hundreds of emails and internal files of the company in the aftermath of the incident were accessed by The Guardian and subsequently shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, of which The Indian Express is a part of.
As per the reported leaks, the executives at the company headquarters in San Francisco went into fire-fighting mode after their services were banned in the national capital following the 2014 incident, and looked at ways to combat a domino effect across other markets as well, The Indian Express reported, citing the documents it had accessed.
The trail of mails reveal a tumultuous period in the company, eventually leading to the exit of its co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. From the mail thread regarding the Delhi rape case, the company’s stance on the whole issue could be divided into two categories.
Firstly, the company felt that the Indian system of Background Checks (BGCs) of drivers, that allowed rape accused Shiv Kumar Yadav to commit another sexual harassment offence, was “flawed.” Secondly, apart from introducing added safety features on its app, the company needed to guard its reputation in other global markets.
Soon after the rape incident, on December 9, 2014, company’s Head of Public Policy in Asia Jordan Condo, wrote to the company top leadership, “It is important that we show compassion and express our willingness to develop a longer term solution to stop this pandemic of violence against women in India.” Several replied to his mail, suggesting for ways to upgrade the system and maintain a country-wise document on BGCs for both licensed and non-licensed drivers,” reported IE.
The part where it gets sketchier is when the top honchos within the company start shifting the blame to the local authorities in India. In the mails further accessed by the IE, the communication among the bosses regarding the same are revealed in the excerpts below:
— Mark MacGann, then Uber’s Head of Public Policy for Europe and Middle East, wrote on December 8: “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.’’
— Niall Wass, then Uber’s Senior Vice President for Europe, Middle East and Africa, wrote to the entire office team on December 9: “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 appears to be insufficient as it appears the accused also had some previous rape allegations, which the Delhi police check did not identify (in what’s called a ‘character certificate.’).”
— A week after the incident, Mark MacGann sent a mail to the his team stating that it was not the company, but the Indian system that was responsible. He wrote: “we are in the process of platinum-plating our background checks in other regions, given the issue in India (where the official State system is at fault, not Uber).”
As a result of the incident, the services were banned in Delhi for seven months, before the Delhi High Court
Further email exchanges reveal how the leadership was trying to gauge an international fallout because of the Delhi incident. In the next thread titled “threats”, dated December 11, 2014, the exchanges were made at the highest level between Juan Batiz, a senior executive, and David Plouffe, Uber’s Vice President for policy and strategy, who acted as an advisor to US President Barack Obama before joining the company.
Batiz: “The fact is that we are not taxis, hence taxi regulations do not apply to us. I think taxis are really looking to get rid of current burdensome and corrupt requirements which they face today more than banning Uber like products…”
Plouffe, while referring to other top managers, writes: “Can you guys lay out other places where you think in light of India/reputation issues, you could see courts or regulators find a way or reason to shut us down.”
Plouffe, in another thread revealing the company’s insecurities, dated December 23, 2014, writes, “Driver verification capabilities will be a necessity — we are exceedingly vulnerable there and only a matter of time before we have an incident (Chicago could be it, hope not) where that becomes a global problem for us.”
In view of Kalanick postponing his India visit in 2015, Allen Penn, Uber’s then Asia chief, asked the then CEO to go forward with the trip for the following reasons — Firstly, “have a lead time for high level meetings (eg PM and Cabinet).” Secondly, “Let the air clear further on the rape, giving space for a higher success rate on Government and business meetings.” And finally, “Get Delhi back live… and thus not have that ban cloud.”