Uber in the dock

The ride-sharing giant’s ethically dubious and potentially illegal tactics to fuel expansion is mind-boggling.

Uber leaks
To be sure, it may not be just Uber that was flying under the radar. (Reuters)

The Uber Files exposé, published by The Indian Express on Monday, is a damning indictment of the so-called “best practices” followed by some of the global giants. The exposé that is based on a leak of company documents between 2014 and 2017, shows Uber used a ‘kill switch’— a stealth technology—to fend off government investigations. Following the 2014 rape of a passenger in Delhi by a driver using the Uber platform, senior executives, in internal communications pushed for shaping the narrative in a way that put the blame on the government’s poor background checks for licensing, rather than any introspection on the company’s own screening process of drivers. Bear in mind that a senior Uber Asia executive was fired after media investigations said that he had illegally obtained the medical records of the rape survivor, and shared them with the top leadership, with the aim of spinning the rape incident as a conspiracy orchestrated by a rival ride-hailing company. In France, during the 2016 protests by taxi-drivers against Uber’s arrival in the market, founder and then CEO Travis Kalanick, who is largely believed to have driven the culture at the company, wrote to senior colleagues “violence guarantee(s) success” as he pushed for a counter protest. What is of real concern is the “we are…illegal” comments by a senior executive. This suggests substantial awareness among the leadership about the legal grey area that the company often willingly operated in.

To be sure, it may not be just Uber that was flying under the radar. Under the plea of innovation, many new-age companies could just be benefiting from regulatory arbitrage. Many of them don’t yet have to submit to the universe of compliances and standards (outside of those set by themselves) that legacy competitors face. Add to this an over-aggressive leadership, and you have potentially many more Ubers on your hands. The willingness to bend/side-step rules shows in how ‘platform’ companies have managed to avoid compliance with labour-protection laws by designating service personnel as independent contractors. Those who argue that regulation stifles innovation would do well to look at the other side of the picture in the light of the Uber expose. This is not to say that legacy regulation is fine as it stands—on the contrary, it needs to evolve so that tech solutions can benefit users at large. But there is a need for balance, one that upholds fair conduct more than anything else.

The current leadership at Uber—allegations of Kalanick nurturing a toxic culture at the company forced him to resign in 2017— has sought to break from the past saying that “Uber is a different company today … will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values.” But the fact is that years after the rape case in Delhi, The Indian Express found over a month of hailing rides using Uber, that only seven of 50 cabs used had active panic buttons to send safety alerts to the authorities. In the 43 that didn’t have active buttons, 29 didn’t have the button at all. Uber may argue it is just a ground implementation issue, but it is difficult to not read a complacent leadership into this. Overall, it’s a poor reflection of the internal practices of a Silicon Valley start-up which has become a $44-billion global transportation giant with operations in 72 countries.

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First published on: 12-07-2022 at 05:15 IST
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