What Uber Files reveals about big tech influence on our lives

The expose has brought to sharp focus the market manipulation for profiteering by big tech at the cost of ethics.
Travis Kalanick, co-founder and former CEO of Uber
Travis Kalanick, co-founder and former CEO of Uber
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“The only reason to do business is to make money” - Kevin O’Leary

How would large corporations work if they single-mindedly espoused the philosophy in the quote above? The recent global investigation based on a tranche of 124,000 leaked documents from the 2013-17 period comprising emails and messages of the senior leadership of the transportation company, Uber, gives a glimpse of the grave consequences that such ruthless profiteering would bring about. The Uber Files, as the expose is now called, shows how Uber had used its massive sphere of global influence to lobby heads of governments across several countries predominantly large Western democracies such as US, UK and France to try to sway decisions in their favour. 

The backdrop: The Californian Ideology

California a large state in the West coast of the US mainland is widely regarded as the capital of big-tech. California’s cities are home to most of the big-tech companies we know today, including names such as Google, Uber, Apple, Facebook and PayPal. During the early days of California’s tech-boom, in the 1990s, two English media theorists wrote an widely noted essay titled ‘The Californian Ideology’. Their essay critiqued the ideology the authors saw as the foundation of California’s growing tech scene viz., technology as a tool of individuals’ liberation from the political control of governments. 

Almost three decades since the essay, the Californian ideology has gained several strong technologist advocates who have founded huge companies. Today, many of these companies arguably have much more control over their users than governments do over their citizens. However, did we, as individuals, become more liberated under the wings of the large corporate dominated tech sector than under governments who are structurally responsible to us, their citizens? 

Adam Curtis, a British documentary film-maker, argued in a 2011 BBC series that the original promise of the Californian Ideology that of individuals’ liberation has miserably failed. His observation suggests that we, as users of big tech, have become helpless components in a global system, a system that is controlled by rigid economic logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change. With several analyses in the past decade reinforcing such arguments, it has become widely recognized that this single-minded focus on economic gains the mercenary ethos as it may be called underpins the operation of big tech. Today, the economic interests of big tech companies, powered by powerful AI-driven personalisation, play a large role in determining what news we read, what social media posts we see, what products we buy, where we should go on a vacation, and even what careers and life-partners we choose.

The consequences of the mercenary operation of big tech has presented to us in various ways over the years. While the 2018 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal uncovered how big-tech abused its power for swaying political opinions, Google was even prepared to openly threaten the Australian government in 2021 over proposed regulations that would dent their revenue. Yet, big tech companies have been able to reasonably ensure that internal details underlying mercenary decisions weren’t leaked into the public domain. This started changing in 2021 with the Facebook whistleblower scandal that offered glimpses into the internal operations of big tech. The current expose the Uber Files reveal how mercenary big tech operational modalities straddle corporate-government boundaries. 

What the Uber Files reveal

The Uber Files trove of documents tell us how the ride-hailing major targeted expansion of its operations and advanced profiteering goals across more than 40 countries employing dubious strategies. In the interest of offering the readers information on the highlights of the Uber Files expose, we will look at some critical details along three dimensions viz., public perception engineering, lobbying of governments, and compromises of worker safety. 

Uber’s operation model was largely illegal in many countries that had tight regulations to safeguard worker and rider safety and ensure reasonable wages for drivers. The key to Uber’s strategy to expand into such countries was to engineer a public perception that Uber’s operation created a positive social impact and operated as a ‘force for good’. Towards this, Uber engaged with well-respected university professors and paid them large sums to help create ‘actionable research’ for Uber’s PR on its positive role. However, sometimes, public anger did turn against them, such as during the 2014 incident in India where a Uber customer was raped. Uber’s response was to try and shift the blame to Indian authorities and regulations to create a narrative where Uber and the Indian public were on one side, and India’s regulatory structure on the other!

The second rung of Uber’s expansion ladder was that of ensuring that regulations are altered to allow their operation. Uber Files reveal that these included one-to-one meetings with top people in governments globally, including the then US Vice President Joe Biden, and the then French Cabinet Minister Emmanuel Macron. Both currently lead the governments for respective countries. Emmanuel Macron is reported to have brokered a ‘secret deal’ with Uber, and even went a step ahead to suggest that the company present “ready-made” amendments, effectively outsourcing bits of law-drafting to Uber! 

We now turn our eyes to the liberation promise did Uber liberate drivers from obsolete and restrictive practices? On income, many drivers would readily admit  as I have heard from several in Kochi that their real per-hour wages have declined with gig platforms like Uber, in line with reported decline of wages by around 50-70% in sectors dominated by artificial intelligence. The Uber Files reveal another dark side, one related to worker safety. The then Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, was keen on sending Uber drivers to the site of anti-Uber protests since, as he thought, ‘violence guarantees success’ —how much more ruthless can profiteering get!

The tip of the iceberg?

The Uber Files expose was possible due to revelations from Mark MacGann, a former Uber executive, who was at the forefront of Uber’s lobbying efforts, and is now set to become one of its sharpest critics. Many of our young and bright minds are routinely lured into steeply unethical practices in the lucrative big-tech industry. At some point, some of them will undoubtedly step back and look at what kind of values their activities catalyse, and will gather the courage to stand up against the economic muscle-power, like Mark MacGann did. The Uber Files can only be the first among several such revelations to make the point that the big-tech sector cannot be free of ethics.

Deepak P is Associate Professor with the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen’s University Belfast, UK. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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