Former Uber Exec: Media companies and whistleblowers falsify narratives for their own gain
As someone who worked closely with Uber leadership in the early days of the company, I figured I’d take the latest Guardian hit piece and add some color commentary.
“I am partly responsible,” he said. “I was the one talking to governments, I was the one pushing this with the media, I was the one telling people that they should change the rules because drivers were going to benefit and people were going to get so much economic opportunity.
That’s called lobbying. That’s how people and companies get governments to re-think outdated or ineffective rules. There’s nothing unusual or inherently bad about it.
He said the ease with which Uber penetrated the highest echelons of power in countries such as the UK, France and Russia was “intoxicating” but also “deeply unfair” and “anti-democratic”.
Was it? Or was just effective and efficient lobbying — a key part of the democratic process? Isn’t adding more choices for drivers and riders more democratic? Isn’t fighting against Taxi cartels democratic?
Maybe Uber was simply seen as an important company with something valuable to say? Is he implying bribery or other impropriety that could fairly be described as anti-democratic? No.
Responding to the wider investigation, Uber acknowledged past failings but insisted the company had transformed since 2017 under the leadership of its new chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi. “We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values,” a spokesperson said.
Of course not — because in today’s media landscape, trying to offer clarifications and differences in perspective just makes the news cycle last longer. No one wants to hear and properly consider dissenting opinions.
MacGann is understood to have recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Uber after a legal dispute relating to his remuneration. He said he was prohibited from discussing his legal dispute but acknowledged he had had personal grievances with the company, which he alleges undervalued his role as an interlocutor with government and failed in its duty of care to him.
So… he has an axe to grind?
He accuses Uber under Kalanick’s leadership of adopting a confrontational strategy with opponents in Taxi industries, that left him personally exposed. As a public face of Uber in Europe, MacGann bore the brunt of what became a fierce backlash against the company in countries including France, Belgium, Italy and Spain.
Uber was dealing with Taxi cartels, protectionist regulations, physical threats, and more. Of course, it was confrontational?
He bore the brunt? Wasn’t that his job?
Amid threats to his life, he was given bodyguard protection.
So what he’s saying is that Uber took steps to protect him? Seems like they acted responsibly?
His experience of working at Uber, he says, took a mental toll and contributed to a subsequent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
So he has an axe to grind and a mental health issue? How is his inability to handle the pressure of the job Uber’s fault?
“The company approach in these places was essentially to break the law, show how amazing Uber’s service was, and then change the law. My job was to go above the heads of city officials, build relations with the top level of government, and negotiate. It was also to deal with the fallout.
What no one ever remembers or relates about these “laws” is that they were…
a) Protectionist regulations designed to protect legacy businesses from real competition.
b) Sometimes, anti-consumer (e.g. limos were regulated NOT to show up in less than 1 hour to protect the inefficiencies of existing players.)
c) Tested and broken by competitors like Lyft before Uber started doing the same.
d) Ultimately not enforced by cities when tested — because they were not serving the community.
On his first day on staff, MacGann was in an Uber from London City airport when he got his first taste of the startup’s laissez-faire approach to privacy. After emailing a senior executive to tell them he was in traffic, MacGann received the reply: “I’m watching you on Heaven — already saw the ETA!”
“Heaven”, otherwise known as “God View”, was the codeword Uber employees used at the time for a tool that allowed staff to surreptitiously use the app’s backend technology to surveil the real-time movements of any user in the world.
“It felt like children playing around with powerful surveillance technology,” said MacGann. “Even back then it was dawning on me this was a rogue company.”
It’s always amusing when “Heaven” is referred to as surveillance technology and framed as a nefarious and illicit tool.
Every. single. system. can monitor global activity across that system. This is how you monitor its health and optimize its operations.
This is especially important in a real-time two-sided marketplace.
I work on a number of real-time marketplaces right now that have such systems in place. They had such systems before I joined. They will have them long after I leave.
MacGann said most senior politicians were instinctively supportive of Uber, viewing the tech company as offering an innovative new platform that could allow for flexible working and help reboot economies after the financial crisis.
I thought it was a combative company breaking essential laws and wilfully hurting people?
However, it was a more mixed story in France, where Uber’s unlicensed service prompted taxi driver riots and divided the cabinet of the then president, François Hollande.
On one side was Bernard Cazeneuve, the minister of the interior, who according to MacGann once summoned him to his office and threatened him with jail, saying: “I will hold you personally and criminally responsible if you do not shut it down by the end of the week.”
Taxi Drivers globally were convinced by their cartel Taxi owners to embrace their terrible working conditions and defend their business. Their overreaction in France was an unfortunate and terrible worst-case-scenario.
The reality was that most Taxi drivers were better off as Uber drivers. They are certainly better off with choice in the marketplace.
Change is often painful and emotional for people. I will address this more below.
The data includes text message exchanges between MacGann and Macron, who was working behind the scenes to assist the US tech company. In one exchange, MacGann asks for Macron’s help in the midst of a raid on the company’s offices. In another he complains about an apparent ban on its services in Marseille.
Macron told MacGann he would “personally” look into the matter. “At this point, let’s stay calm,” the minister said.
MacGann recalls Macron as being “the only person who gave us the time of day … So he was a massive breath of fresh air.”
Macron did not respond to detailed questions about his relationship with Uber. A spokesperson said his ministerial duties at the time “naturally led him to meet and interact with many companies” engaged in the service sector.
So entrenched interests were upset about being disrupted while liberal, modern thinkers were embracing the change? Shocking.
Uber’s executives met with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Irish taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and the UK chancellor, George Osborne. Securing those meetings, MacGann said, was “a piece of cake”. “Uber was considered hot property.” So much so that when Kalanick met Joe Biden at the Swiss resort it was at the US vice-president’s request.
The Uber files reveal that Kalanick fumed when he was kept waiting by Biden, texting other Uber executives: “I’ve had my people let him know that every minute late he is, is one less minute he will have with me.”
Sounds like governments everywhere were excited to meet with Uber. Sounds like Travis had built something people valued. Great right? Not the way this article reads.
However, it was another Kalanick text in the leak — in which the former CEO appears to advocate sending Uber drivers to a protest in France, despite the risk of violence — that has sparked headlines across the world.
Warned by MacGann and Whetstone that encouraging Uber drivers to protest amid violent taxi strikes in Paris risked putting them at risk, Kalanick replied: “I think it’s worth it. Violence guarantee[s] success.”
What this specific article doesn’t include is a section from another of their posts that adds context to the comment. Specifically…
Whetstone added that taxi drivers’ unions were “being taken over by far-right spoiling for a fight”. “One to think through,” she said. MacGann chipped in, suggesting the French team would “look at effective civil disobedience and at the same time keep folks safe”.
Kalanick’s startlingly frank reply suggested he thought any further trouble could benefit Uber in its continuing battle with the French government. “If we have 50,000 riders they won’t and can’t do anything,” he wrote. “I think it’s worth it. Violence guarantee[s] success. And these guys must be resisted, no? Agreed that right place and time must be thought out.”
It’s clear Travis was speaking to the fact that if the Taxi drivers are being violent, their actions would ultimately be self-defeating. He is clearly not advocating that Uber creates violence.
Let me highlight the actually relevant parts of the article.
unions were “being taken over by far right spoiling for a fight”
And these guys must be resisted, no? Agreed that right place and time must be thought out.”
So Travis agreed that resistance and counter-protests should be at the right time and place [to be safe].
MacGann insists that Uber drivers were seen by some at the company as pawns who could be used to put pressure on governments. “And if that meant Uber drivers going on strike, Uber drivers doing a demo in the streets, Uber drivers blocking Barcelona, blocking Berlin, blocking Paris, then that was the way to go,” he said. “In a sense, it was considered beneficial to weaponise Uber drivers in this way.”
Was Uber first to weaponize drivers? Or were the violent Taxi driver unions doing it?
If there were large groups of Uber drivers who wanted to peacefully demonstrate on behalf of the company, doesn’t it make sense to encourage them to do it — safely?
Isn’t this essentially and fundamentally democratic?
The files show MacGann’s fingerprints on this strategy, too. In one email, he praised staffers in Amsterdam who leaked stories to the press about attacks on drivers to “keep the violence narrative” and pressure the Dutch government.
Looking back, MacGann said: “I am disgusted and ashamed that I was a party to the trivialisation of such violence.”
Trivializing violence? How is keeping violence against Uber Drivers front-and-center in the media to pressure the Dutch government to address the issue, trivializing it?
I could keep going, but I have real work to do.
Apparently, the Guardian’s definition of hard-hitting journalism is is dredge up old narratives to drive clicks.
Always remember that — just because a media outlet writes something and frames it with negative adjectives does not make it negative. Read each story from the point of view of the villain, and you will often see how their actions can easily be framed in another (often equally correct) way.
It’s so easy to take a photo of a CEO pulling an awkward face, make it black and white, and do a Ken Burns-style zoom-in while playing ominous music to make him seem evil. When in fact, in that moment, he was simply shrugging because he didn’t know if he wanted to order a Coke or a Pepsi.
It’s easy to frame Uber’s actions as aggressive. Or you can frame them as disruptive to the status quo that needed to change.
Uber changed the way people get and do work. It showed the world another level of unbundling was possible.
Was Uber perfect? No.
However, all real change is disruptive and even painful. It can create new winners and losers. It might require new laws and new processes to smooth out suffering for the people affected negatively.
Newspapers disrupted stone tablets. Radio disrupted newspapers. TV disrupted radio. The internet disrupted everything. People in these industries were displaced. It was painful. But it was also progress.
Empathy, productive reforms, and a long view are always required.
A never-ending, one-sided, good-vs-evil media narrative is not required or helpful.