Policy

Uber clobbered foreign governments with classic DC tactics

Former government officials go into the private sector all the time to leverage their networks.

David Plouffe in a fireside chat hosted by Uber

While working for Uber, former Obama adviser David Plouffe prompted U.K. embassy staff to set up a public event for him to discuss the gig economy.

Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images

A trove of nearly 125,000 leaked documents detailing Uber’s efforts, under ex-CEO Travis Kalanick, to elbow into cities and countries around the world through secret ties to the highest levels of policymaking has gone public. The so-called Uber files show the company also went big on an expensive program to boost sympathetic researchers and carefully cultivate business allies with political pull.

They also reveal a company exporting a standard playbook for sophisticated U.S. firms, including many tech companies that hoped they could outrun regulation in the years before the techlash.

The documents — provided by Uber’s former chief European lobbyist to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and shared with investigative journalists around the world — provide rare insight into the day-to-day operations of Uber under Kalanick. The company was at the time known for its ethical compromises and culture of harassment, and Kalanick was ousted as CEO in 2017. But the files also show how the ride-hailing company’s strategy in dealing with international governments differed more in degree than in kind when compared to other U.S. tech companies. The result was that the company had valuable allies and contacts — if not always guarantees of success.

Take David Plouffe, who managed President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and later joined the White House before becoming Uber’s senior vice president of policy and strategy in 2014. Plouffe emailed Obama’s ambassador to the U.K. directly in late 2015, prompting embassy staff to set up a public event centered around him discussing the gig economy, according to The Guardian. The report also detailed hopes inside Uber that Plouffe and his team could reach out to the U.S. ambassadors to France and the Netherlands, where the company was clashing with regulators.

Or take Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign before he began consulting for Uber. In emails, he appeared to offer to plead the company’s case before the leaders of Italy and Spain, The Guardian reported. Messina was ostensibly meeting the heads of state in his capacity as an international political consultant.

Plouffe, who is now head of policy and advocacy for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, denied to The Guardian that his CV helped him in meetings, and a Messina spokesperson denied he’d ever gone through with approaching foreign leaders on Uber’s behalf. Uber has continued to distance itself from Kalanick and condemned several of his decisions — though not necessarily his hiring choices — in response to the leaks.

From .gov to .com

Hiring former government and campaign officials has, in fact, become the hallmark of many companies’ policy efforts. Sometimes firms are relying only on the name recognition and expertise in policymaking of new employees. At other times, those who enter the private sector from the worlds of politics fully plan to mix their old and new networks — at least after the end of mandated “cooling off” periods, during which they can’t reach out to old associates still serving in the government.

Hiring former government and campaign officials has become the hallmark of many companies’ policy efforts.

Companies and lobbying firms routinely celebrate the former government positions of their new employees. Amazon, for instance, hired former White House press secretary Jay Carney in 2015, while former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson joined Apple soon after leaving the government in 2013. The D.C.-to-Silicon Valley pipeline was particularly robust late in the Obama years, when officials from the tech-savvy and tech-friendly administration joined companies that — particularly in cases like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb — were hoping to shape the policy gray areas in which they operated to their advantage. Some of those who went west, like Carney and Jackson, were boldfaced names; others were major players behind the scenes.

But just as Uber wasn’t alone in shelling out for policy talent, government officials from the mid-2010s weren’t the only ones in tech pursuing the practice. Republican former Federal Communications Commission Chair Kevin Martin, who served under President George W. Bush, still sits atop Facebook’s Washington office, while Sheryl Sandberg held a top post in the Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton. Chris Lehane, an alumnus of the Clinton White House, likewise joined Airbnb, in 2015, and stayed until earlier this year.

Nor was aggressive recruiting of former government officials unique to the U.S. Facebook also hired Nick Clegg, the U.K.’s former deputy prime minister. The Uber leaks also reveal a former European Commission official fighting ethics determinations that said she had to obey a cooling-off period before joining the company’s policy advisory board. And the Uber leaker himself, former European Uber official Mark MacGann, had a long career as a lobbyist in the EU.

Beyond the revolving door

Still, many tech companies, including Uber, have benefitted from more comfortable operating environments at home in the U.S., not least of all as they faced greater regulation and enforcement in the EU than here. For Uber, that included government raids in both Paris and Amsterdam (at which point the company tried to minimize what the authorities could seize from the rest of the company by cutting off computers from internal servers). The EU has also been faster to regulate privacy and competition than the U.S., although those efforts have mainly touched more on companies like Google rather than gig economy firms like Uber.

The coziness that some of Uber’s top policy employees seem to have felt with the very same government actors who might regulate the company has often prompted ethics concerns across business sectors. Watchdog organizations have decried those who leave lawmakers’ offices or federal agencies to go work for the private sector, labeling them part of a “revolving door” between industry and public service. Yet efforts to crack down on the practice have largely stuck to a far narrower conception of influence than many companies seek to pursue with their hires.

Many tech companies, including Uber, have benefitted from more comfortable operating environments at home in the U.S.

Obama, for instance, put in place a then-unprecedented ethics pledge that stopped administration officials from lobbying the executive branch until he left office. The policy did not, however, stop his former employees from lobbying Congress, states or international governments — or from designing a strategy for influencing policy or coming up with effective public persuasion that supposedly isn’t tailored to the government.

The breadth of Uber’s efforts to leverage various connections internationally revealed the many ways that companies can try to prod policy one way or another. The Uber documents, for instance, show the company sometimes paid more than $100,000 to ostensibly independent economic researchers in the EU and U.S. for a single study, according to another Guardian report. Those researchers at times even promised in advance that their results would provide good PR. The practice mirrors efforts by Google, which routinely issued grants to sympathetic academics even as it insisted it didn’t dictate particular conclusions, and Facebook, which has declared it's facilitating scholarship while it imposes intense burdens on scholars whose conclusions might be unflattering.

Partners and helpers

Uber also tried to extend its influence through its business arrangements. The company brought in Russian oligarchs to invest, for example, and launched a partnership on mobile payments and vehicle financing with Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank, which is close to the country’s elite. Both relationships were meant to — and to a certain extent did — provide Uber with introductions to policymakers and help smooth regulatory battles, according to The Washington Post.

The ties, however, raised questions in a country that even by 2014 was already facing sanctions and returning to authoritarianism and regional aggression, according to the Post. Uber’s local oligarch investors even pushed the company to hire an overly expensive local lobbyist who Uber worried might simply bribe people.

Ultimately, Uber’s U.S.-style lobbying and policy operation met with mixed success.

Still, it’s common, in the EU and U.S., for tech companies to seek business partners that can tout their good name and open doors, including regulatory ones. SoftBank, for instance, has often used its lobbyists to help boost tech startups in which it has taken a stake. (After Kalanick was forced out, those investments for a time included Uber.) And it’s not unusual for companies to hire lobbyists and strategists simply because they come highly recommended or because they’re particularly close to figures at the top reaches of government.

Ultimately, Uber’s U.S.-style lobbying and policy operation met with mixed success. In France, the company was in direct contact with Emmanuel Macron, who was then economy minister and who seemed happy to negotiate Uber-friendly policies. But in Russia, Uber appeared to have overestimated the sway of the oligarchs it partnered with, and the local lobbyist appears to have done little. Ultimately, Uber’s efforts yielded so little that it essentially had to let the Russian tech giant Yandex take over its operations.

Just as in the U.S., a sophisticated operation could still fall through.

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