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Uber leak reveals how company lobbied governments to help its global rise

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Leaked documents show how Uber executives did business. The documents are dubbed the Uber Files. The files show the company, which many people use to get a ride, dodged local tax laws and worked to slow down investigations of its practices, even took advantage of its drivers. Someone gave these documents to The Guardian, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, where Sydney Freedberg is the chief reporter. Good morning.

SYDNEY FREEDBERG: Good morning. How are you, Steve?

INSKEEP: I'm doing OK. I mean, some people are very familiar with Uber because they use it every day. They connect people who need a ride with drivers who want to give one. They, of course, are designed to evade taxi and transit rules. They operate a little bit outside the law, by definition. But are you saying it's worse than we thought?

FREEDBERG: I think what we're saying is that a lot was known, Steve, about their practices in the United States, but very little was known about their aggressive, audacious and chaotic overseas expansion. So these documents essentially shed light on what happened when - in the years 2014 to 2017 when Uber is in the posture of expanding rapidly in Europe and elsewhere.

INSKEEP: How did they get the cooperation of top officials in places like France, for example?

FREEDBERG: Well, that - OK, so what these documents show is that the company kind of knowingly broke laws and thwarted law enforcement. And they secretly lobbied governments, and one of the top examples of that, I think, is Emmanuel Macron, who at the time was a young minister, very ambitious, and he held a lot of confidential talks, it turns out, with Uber at the time of their advance. There was all sorts of problems in Paris and elsewhere, Marseilles, because the taxi industry was totally opposed to Uber coming in and basically in defiance of local rules. So they needed a friend - Uber needed a friend and got in and sort of turned Macron into a top ally.

INSKEEP: Did Uber manage to make a friend of another future president, Joe Biden, who was then vice president of the United States?

FREEDBERG: Yeah, that's kind of an interesting, lovely little anecdote in our story. So President Biden, when he was vice president, is in Davos in 2016, and he asks for a meeting with the then CEO. And it's arranged by a bunch of former Obama aides, including David Plouffe, best known for being the architect of President Obama's 2008 campaign. They go into - they have a secret meeting. Uber wants it secret; Biden doesn't say anything about the secrecy. They go into a meeting in Davos right before Vice President Biden is to give a keynote address about the future - the digital economy and the future of work in the world. So they go into the meeting, and the CEO pitches Biden on what a great company Uber is. And then Uber goes on stage in the InterContinental in Davos, and he sticks a line in the speech about alluding to the company and what a kind of great deal it is for workers.

INSKEEP: Which is not a suggestion of something improper. But they got in there and they were persuasive, and they persuaded Biden to promote their cause. Now, this thing about taking advantage of drivers and violence against drivers, very briefly, what did they do?

FREEDBERG: Well, essentially - so there were these anti-Uber protests led by taxi drivers, and they've broken out in Europe. And the leaked correspondence shows that the CEO - the then-CEO and various executives in the company - not all but some - they basically encourage - at that point, they encourage employees to have Uber drivers stage a counterprotest. There was one in France that they were suggesting. So despite the warnings, they kind of put their - put the drivers at risk of attack, saying it would be worth it because in the words of the former CEO, violence guarantees success. So they're - it's a way for them to sort of curry favor with political types who might see the violence as distasteful.

INSKEEP: OK. Some of the findings from 124,000 documents obtained by The Guardian and reviewed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Reporter Sydney Freedberg, thanks so much.

FREEDBERG: You're welcome. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.