Uber files revelations underline the value of whistleblowing
Photo: Mark MacGann was Uber's chief lobbyist between 2014-2016. Photograph David Levene/The Guardian
Working in the State sector, for example on a State board, is high-risk reputationally. So much is subject to the Freedom of Information legislation. So much leaks. Assume nothing is secret. Given that context, it is astonishing what people get up to and what they think will remain secret but subsequently becomes public.
The leak by an Irish whistleblower of thousands of Uber documents last week is a case in point. The leak revealed the extent to which cab-hailing Uber lobbied governments worldwide to introduce regulations or deregulate favourably to Uber.
Lobbying included senior Irish figures, notably John Moran, who served as secretary general of the Department of Finance for a relatively short period, 2011-2014, before he resigned unexpectedly. During his period as secretary general, Mr Moran developed relationships with influential people such as politicians and senior civil servants. These relationships can be monetised. Shortly after he departed the Department of Finance, Mr Moran founded a consulting company, RHH International, in 2015. That August, Uber hired RHH International/Mr Moran as a lobbyist. Presumably Uber paid handsomely for Mr Moran’s contacts with influential people.
The Oireachtas legislated in 2015, requiring relevant parties to disclose their lobbying activities. However, some key Uber lobbyists did not disclose all their activities, no doubt hoping those activities would remain secret. Mr Moran says he fully disclosed his role. It remains to be seen whether any action will be taken in the event that anyone is found to have been non-compliant with the legislation.
Whistleblowers normally expose wrongdoing. The term “whistleblower” has a negative connotation, which, in my opinion, is unfair. Whistleblowing is sometimes characterised as pro-social, meaning whistleblowers engage in positive social behaviour motivated by the intention to benefit others. However, some whistleblowers may be self-interested.
The United States offers a share of the revenues recovered by the state following whistleblowing. Whistleblowers receive 10 to 30 per cent of monetary sanctions recovered exceeding $1 million, capped at a maximum of $30 million.
Research on whistleblowers finds them to be people with principles and strong moral convictions. Whistleblowers tend to be highly loyal to their organisations. They worry the misconduct they expose would undermine their organisations. Employees are often forced to blow the whistle externally when managers do not respond appropriately to concerns raised internally.
The Uber whistleblower is Irish – Mark MacGann, born in Longford and raised in Roscommon. He provided his leak, now called the Uber files, to The Guardian newspaper, which made it available to a wider group of journalists. He was an Uber chief lobbyist between 2014-2016. Thus, he played a central role in the issues about which he leaked. Mr MacGann now says that conscience motivated him to leak his Uber files to reveal Uber’s treatment of people. He criticised the company for its willingness “to break all the rules and use its money and its power, to impact, to destroy”. He added: “To the extent that people want me to help, I want to play a role in trying to correct that mistake”.
Mr MacGann is not the first Uber whistleblower. In 2017, engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post that disclosed the relentless sexual harassment, sexism and chaos at Uber. Her revelations brought down then Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick. She described a toxic work culture at Uber that we again see at play in the Uber leaks story. Publicity about Uber’s “God-View” further revealed toxic practices. Uber used its real-time aerial-view surveillance technology to allow party guests to watch and spy on Uber users.
Unlike sharing-economy online marketplace platforms such as Airbnb or eBay, car-hailing business Uber organises labour and uses its platform to mobilise precarious labour relations. Uber has promoted its “gig economy” business model as offering its drivers autonomy, the opportunity for self-employment, security and flexible working conditions. The dark side of that business model is zero-hours contracts, intense surveillance and a work environment that is precarious and unstable. Many gig-economy workers must work long hours to make ends meet. Treating drivers as independent contractors means Uber does not have to provide sick pay, unemployment insurance and holiday pay. However, a recent US Supreme Court ruling forced Uber to provide drivers with similar benefits to employees.
Uber’s platform sets fares and takes a 25 per cent cut, thereby determining driver income. Customers provide feedback which can negatively affect drivers, as Uber tends to side with customers. Uber decides which trips to offer drivers. Uber can penalise drivers for cancelling or not confirming trips.
The MacGann leaks reveals Uber’s illegal tactics. It had an internal “kill switch” to shut down software in the event of a raid by government officials. The leaks show Uber used this tactic several times in different countries. Another manoeuvre it called “Greyball” involved using customers’ private geolocation data, credit card data and social media profiles to check whether they were enforcement officials and then to deny them ride requests so they could not gather evidence of Uber’s illegal practices.
The leaks also highlight driver exploitation, with little concern for driver safety. The leaks reveal how the company side-stepped paying its fair share of taxes, instead redirecting tax officials to collect taxes from its drivers.
All its lobbying was ultimately unsuccessful. Uber did not win Uber-friendly regulation in Ireland. Our civil servants and politicians are to be commended for standing firm against Uber’s efforts.
Niamh Brennan is Michael MacCormac Professor of Management, University College Dublin.