By Shivanand Pandit
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has opened a Pandora’s Box. It has exposed that Uber employed stealth technology to avoid regulators, tapped into the lobbying network and fiercely cut corners as it dodged law and regulation. The Uber Files exposé is a negative outcome of the so-called “best practices” followed by some international giants.
Uber Files is a collection of uncovered confidential papers. It has shown how the entity wooed top politicians, fooled investigators and triggered a so-called “kill switch” to cut entry to servers. The evidence contained in the Uber Files has been gathered from more than 1,24,000 records, including 83,000 emails and 1,000 remaining files concerning discussions during the time of its expansion from 2013 to 2017.
The Uber Files have also shown the hostile way in which the company’s top officials responded to an accusation of rape by an Uber driver in Delhi in December 2014. Formally voicing shock and sympathy, officials in internal communications attempted to lay the fault on the bleak backdrop. Examinations on drivers were carried out by the administrators of the government of India. After Uber services were barred in Delhi, the company’s executives tried to put out the fire, fearing it could begin in other nations.
Facts and figures also displayed how Uber handled tax and regulation issues that often arise in India and employed it as an example in other nations. India being the main market, Uber used its lobbying plan here. The steps the organisation took to impact policy were to draw up a list of “stakeholders” from among the bureaucracy and the political class, and to sign nearly a dozen MoUs in several states, most of them on paper. According to reliable sources, Uber followed the same tricks in a number of European countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, assembling drivers and motivating them to complain to the police when they were victims of violence.
The Files unveiled that Uber urged governments to help its expansion, finding in particular a supporter in French president Emmanuel Macron, who was economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Uber officials also flattered oligarchs linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin through past US and UK executives and struck special contacts with them. Those oligarchs have since been approved by western governments in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
The company had suggested a global budget of $90 million in 2016 alone for lobbying and related actions, according to the leaked papers. That year, ten Uber officials descended on the ski-resort town of Davos, Switzerland, to chat, party and strike deals with global leaders and oligarchs at the World Economic Forum. Overall, the Uber Files revealed how a ride-hailing start-up founded by Travis Kalanick in San Francisco in 2010 was utilising technology, working around legislation and destructive lobbying approaches to favour governments during the period of its dramatic growth plan to become a global titan.
The Files have confirmed the worries of India that Big Tech entities have been using technology to misuse the system and consumers. However, the government has now decided to introduce strong regulations. Union Minister of State for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship and Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar said that new rules and laws will lessen the chances for big tech companies violating Indian laws or doing something unlawful. He said that innovation is vital and the government will continue to inspire an innovation ecosystem, but it will introduce laws and rules to guarantee that the internet is open, harmless, reliable, and responsible. According to him, strong laws are more important in India because 80 crore Indians use the internet and in another 30 months, 120 crore would be using them.
So what is a Kill Switch? A kill switch can deactivate a particular function or stop a specific process immediately. In the manufacturing segment, it is used to stop operations to prevent damage in assembly lines or save a worker’s life. They serve the same objective in the digital domain, but instead of hardware, they are mostly software-based. In 2014, the kill switch was recommended as a remedy to tackle smart phone theft in the US. Thus, users the world over can distantly delete their data and render their smart phones useless if lost or stolen.
Even amusement parks and petrol pumps have kill switches for obvious purposes. A kill switch in a factory or vehicle could merely be a red knob to prevent operations or kill a device. However, noticing a digital kill switch would be tougher because it is generally software-centred and activated only when an operator or firm is in danger. Also, hackers insert kill switches in their malware to abolish them remotely to escape being located if they are traced. Because hackers relish breaking connected gadgets and systems, few VPN providers offer a kill switch to involuntarily detach your gadget from the web in case you lose your VPN connection, safeguarding your confidentiality. Phone thefts decreased after makers initiated the remote kill switch. As per Consumer Watchdog’s report, every connected car should include an internet kill switch to block hackers from remotely controlling them.
The Uber Files exhibited that the company had used kill switches at least 12 times in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Hungary and Romania when administrators started collecting witnesses that could have been used to shut down its service. As per the report, Uber first deployed a kill switch in late 2014 in Paris. In 2015, it used the technology again when Belgian authorities wanted to obtain the company’s facts about drivers residing on servers in the US.
Uber’s story in India is quite displeasing. In June 2022, the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) dragged both Uber and Ola after increasing grievances of consumer rights violations and issued notices to online cab booking platforms. According to CCPA, the responses to these notices are presently under review and it would consider further action after finishing their evaluation.
In March 2022, the Bombay High Court, too, pulled up Ola and Uber for functioning in Maharashtra without lawful authorisations. Uber is also encountering heat from its driver-partners who have been grumbling that their incomes have dropped drastically.
The other big demand from Uber in India has been the “panic button” for the protection of passengers. However, an Uber India proxy said that Uber continues to increase security on the platform, comprising the share trip characteristic through which a rider can share his trip details with reliable contacts while they are travelling in an Uber. As per the media report, years after the rape case in Delhi, more than 80% of the cabs do not have active panic buttons to send safety alerts to the authorities.
It may not be just Uber that is under the radar. Several new-age entities could just be gaining from regulatory arbitrage under the declaration of innovation and revolution. Many do not have to submit to the world of compliances and standards (outside of those set by themselves) that the remaining players face. The inclination to evade regulations indicates how “platform” firms have tried to avoid compliance with labour-protection laws by labelling service personnel as independent contractors.
Those who say that bylaws restrain innovation would do well to look at the other side of the picture in the light of the Uber expose. Therefore, regulation needs to change so that tech resolutions can benefit users at large. However, there is a need for balance, one that supports fair conduct more than anything else.
On the whole, it is 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. The present leadership at Uber says that it is a different company today and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values.
Should this be taken with a bag of salt?
—The writer is a financial and tax specialist, author and public speaker based in Margao, Goa