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‘Violence guarantees success’: Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick appeared to suggest weaponizing taxi drivers in leaked text messages amid protests

July 11, 2022, 12:52 PM UTC
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
A new report suggests Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick leveraged violence against his drivers to campaign governments to rewrite laws that stymied Uber’s expansion.
Wang K'aichicn—Visual China Group/Getty Images

As Uber expanded by aggressively entering new markets across the globe, violent tensions erupted between taxi drivers who once held monopolies on their local ride-hailing scene and the cut-price newcomer.

While attacks against Uber drivers grew across the markets, a new report released on Sunday suggests that not only was then-CEO Travis Kalanick acutely aware of the violence against his drivers, he also sought to leverage it as a campaign tool to push governments to rewrite laws that were slowing Uber’s expansion plans.

The new report is based on internal Uber texts, emails, invoices, and other documents that were leaked to the Guardian, which then shared the data with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a nonprofit network of investigative reporters. Together they produced what they call the Uber Files.

Anti-Uber riots

One of the more dramatic leaked conversations published in the Uber files is a group chat from 2016 in which company leaders discussed the latest incident in a string of anti-Uber driver violence.

In the chat, Kalanick speaks with Rachel Whetstone, Uber’s vice-president for communications, and Mark MacGann, the company’s head of public policy for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, about the Jan. 26, 2016 riots in France, where 2,100 taxi drivers staged a mass anti-Uber protest in and around Paris, blocking the ring road, setting overturned vehicles on fire, and reducing the city center to gridlock.

After Kalanick suggested Uber drivers could practice “civil disobedience”—through peacefully marching or holding a sit-in—Whetstone responded that MacGann was worried about the growing taxi driver violence against private car-hire drivers in Paris. She added that the unions were “being taken over by far-right spoiling for a fight,” and that is was “one to think through.”

MacGann responded, “extreme-right thugs infiltrated some of the taxi protests — we will look at effective civil disobedience and at the same time keep folks safe.”

But Kalanick took a different stance. According to the leaked messages, he pushed back against the notion that Uber’s drivers should avoid conflict and, instead, appeared to welcome it.

“If we have 50,000 riders they won’t and can’t do anything,” Kalanick responded a minute later, saying he thinks the fighting is “worth it.” “Violence guarantee[s] success. And these guys must be resisted, no? Agreed that right place and setup must be thought out.”

Embrace the chaos

Harnessing anti-Uber violence for the company’s gain formed part of Uber’s playbook and was repeated across Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, the Uber Files say. The goal: to promote the narrative that Uber technology was being targeted for disrupting antiquated transport systems that needed to be uprooted.

One senior former executive of Uber told the Guardian that there was a strategy of “weaponizing” drivers and exploiting violence against them to “keep the controversy burning.”

After masked taxi drivers in Amsterdam began beating Uber drivers in March 2015, victims were encouraged to file police reports, which were then shared with leading Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf in an attempt to keep the story in the headlines. One unnamed manager told the Guardian that the stories “will be published without our fingerprint on the front page tomorrow”, adding, “we keep the violence narrative going for a few days before we offer the solution.”

Similar instructions were given in India, where a top executive urged managers to focus on driving growth, even when “fires start to burn”.

“Know this is a normal part of Uber’s business,” he said. “Embrace the chaos. It means you’re doing something meaningful.”

In a statement published by the Guardian, a spokesperson for Kalanick said he “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety. Any accusation that Mr. Kalanick directed, engaged in, or was involved in any of these activities is completely false.”

Kill Switch

One motivation for Uber to bring focus to bear on violence against its drivers may have been to generate sympathy in countries where monopoly taxi services enjoyed close relationships with local authorities—and where Uber’s ride-hailing services were not exactly legal.

Nairi Hourdajian, Uber’s head of global communications, made a blunt node to Uber’s situation in a leaked message to a colleague from 2014, when governments in Thailand and India were trying to shut Uber down. “Sometimes we have problems because, well, we’re just f*cking illegal,” Hourdajian said.

To get around these roadblocks, Uber reportedly created a  “stealth technology” that it could use if governments launched investigations into the company. Uber’s so-called “kill switch” would cut access to Uber servers and block authorities from grabbing evidence during raids, a method that was used on more than 12 occasions in six countries and an order Kalanick issued himself in Amsterdam

In a written statement. Uber spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker acknowledged “mistakes” in Uber’s past and said CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who was hired in 2017, had been “tasked with transforming every aspect of how Uber operates.”

“When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally: 90 percent of current Uber employees joined after Dara became CEO,” Hazelbaker added.

“We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values. Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come.”

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