Uber tried to pin the blame on “flawed” background checks of drivers in India and deployed a strategy to stonewall queries from government authorities after a woman was raped during a cab ride in Delhi in 2014, leaked documents are said to show.
The claims were published by the Indian Express newspaper on Monday after it analysed a cache of internal company documents initially obtained by The Guardian that were shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism.
Dubbed “The Uber Files”, the trove of documents include text and email exchanges between executives from 2013 to 2017.
While the December 2014 rape case had caused a widespread outrage against Uber in India and led to the suspension of its services for seven months, in an August 2014 email titled “Dealing with regulator issues”, the company’s former Asia head Allen Penn informed the team of a strategy to stall queries from the Indian authorities.
In the mail, he told the team to not “talk to the government or folks close to the government” unless specifically discussed with the public policy head for Asia and “generally stall, be unresponsive and often say no” to government queries.
Four months later, Uber was in the line of fire for failing to perform adequate background checks in India after it emerged that the driver, Shiv Kumar Yadav, was facing charges in four other criminal cases at the time he sexually assaulted the female passenger.
The accused was subsequently convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison.
According to the reports published in the Indian Express, though the incident raised an alarm at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, the company not only attempted to pin the blame on the weak driver licensing scheme, but also tried to stall queries by using a “kill switch” mechanism designed to thwart regulatory inquiries from anywhere in the world.
In an internal mail, Mark McGann, Uber’s former head of public policy for Europe and the Middle East, wrote on 8 December that year: “We’re in crisis talks right now and the media is blazing…The Indian driver was indeed licensed, and the weakness/flaw appears to be in the local licensing scheme.
“The view in the US is that we can expect inquiries across our markets on the issue of background checks, in the light of what happened in India,” he said, according to the report.
“We had done what was required in terms of the Indian regulations,” said Niall Wass, Uber’s senior vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa, in a 9 December 2014 email.
“However it’s clear the checks required for a driver to obtain a commercial licence from the authorities now appear to be insufficient as it appears the accused also had some previous rape allegations, which the Delhi police did not identify (in what’s called a character certificate).”
David Plouffe, Uber’s high-profile vice president for policy and strategy who was earlier an adviser to former US president Barack Obama, agreed in another email dated 23 December 2014 that it “was only matter of time before we have an incident”.
“Driver verification capabilities will be a necessity - we are exceedingly vulnerable there and only a matter of time before we have an incident where that becomes a global problem for us.”
The company was notably concerned about the damage to its business and reputation from the incident.
“Can you guys [top Uber managers] lay out other places where you think in light of India/reputation issues, you see courts or regulators find a way or reason to shut us down,” Mr Plouffe had asked.
Among the significant measures by Uber after the sexual assault case was the introduction of an SOS feature on its app.
The ride-hailing company, which had come under the radar of India’s law-enforcement agencies in the aftermath of the incident, also took steps to block access to its data for Indian authorities, revealed an email from Uber manager Rob van der Woude.
“What we did in India is have the city team be as cooperative as possible and have BV [Uber’s international firm in Netherlands] take the heat. For example, the local team was called to provide the information, we shut them down from the system making it practically impossible for them to give out any info despite their willingness to do so,” he wrote in an email dated 10 February 2015.
“At the same time, we kept directing the authorities to talk to BV representatives instead. Not sure if that works here given they have telco info but that bought us some months there.”
Notably, Mr McGann was revealed as the whistleblower in reports on Monday. Mr McGann worked for Uber between 2014 and 2016 as its chief lobbyist for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, overseeing the company’s “government relations and lobbying in more than 40 countries, managing the firm’s global expansion as it moved its business into Europe,” says The Irish Times. He also “sought to force local laws to be rewritten and to break down entry barriers to challenge local taxi industries.”
The publication says that Mr McGann leaked the 124,000 records known as “The Uber Files” to The Guardian, the “International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 40 media partners, including The Irish Times, the BBC and the Washington Post.”
The Independent has contacted Uber for comment on the allegations. Uber’s US spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker and the company’s Delhi spokesperson told the Indian Express that “Uber does not have a ‘Kill Switch’ designed to thwart regulatory inquiries anywhere in the world and has not since Dara Khosrowshahi became CEO in 2017.”
“On the contrary, authorities regularly make requests for information and we routinely cooperate with those requests,” she added.
“While every company has software in place to remotely protect its corporate device, such software should never have been used to thwart legitimate regulatory actions.”