Jhe Uber files are extraordinarily revealing of the ride-sharing app’s lobbying operations across Europe. The company’s extensive and ruthless tactics came to light this week after career lobbyist Mark MacGann, who led Uber’s efforts to win over governments, leaked thousands of documents to the Guardian. They look like a great example of corporate capture. Corporate or regulatory capture occurs when corporations dominate decision-making and are able to influence outcomes based on their interests. And, from Paris to London to Brussels, far too many politicians seem to have fallen in love with Uber.
Easy access to decision makers, whether face-to-face, via email or text message, has clearly been central to Uber’s lobbying strategy. The company has cultivated relationships and had fun with political leaders and ministers around the world.
At the EU level, Uber has had 70 meetings with the highest levels of the European Commission, including 24 with commissioners since the end of November 2014. And these are only the meetings that we know of. Alongside the contacts that then-French economy minister Emmanuel Macron and his team had with Uber and the informal meetings the company had with various UK ministers, Uber has for too long benefited from a privileged and often private access to decision-makers. .
Uber has never been one of the biggest spenders in the big EU tech lobby. Its lobbying expenditure, which is declared via the EU’s voluntary lobbyists register, has increased 14 times since 2013, but from a low base. Nor did he have his own army of lobbyists.
Instead, data from LobbyFacts shows Uber has spent more than $1 million since 2013 paying lobbyists and law firms to lobby on its behalf. Beyond that, Uber is a member of various industry lobby groups in Brussels that help both amplify its lobbying demands and act as a cover when it wants to operate under the radar. This is a tried and tested tactic of the big tech lobby.
And let’s not forget think tanks. In the Brussels bubble, it is almost de rigueur for big business to join think tanks and fund their work in the hope of gaining support for the lobby’s demands and, above all, for the political framing of a problem. Uber is affiliated with several think tanks, according to our research.
In 2014, Uber feared that its fervent supporter Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner in charge of the digital agenda from 2010 to 2014, might leave office. The company therefore set out to recruit her, surely aware of the insider know-how and extensive contact books that such appointments can bring.
The European Commission has long been complacent about its revolving door problem. Despite warnings before Kroes and others left office in 2014, he resisted demands for tighter rules.
But even these lobbying tactics cannot fully explain why Uber was able to enjoy political access and influence among so many politicians. For this, we must recognize the wave of enthusiasm within EU policy circles for so-called ‘innovation’ and big tech ‘disruptors’. Policymakers have viewed platforms such as Uber, Airbnb and others as the titans of “growth and innovation” – granting them privileged access.
It’s time to tackle this type of corporate capture. Full transparency of the lobby is a prerequisite, but it is not enough in itself. We need strong rules to fight privileged access and the end of the revolving door. And we need a real debate about the power corporations wield over our political discourse. Without it, we have no hope of dealing with the climate emergency, the cost of living crisis or the power of big tech.
Ultimately, the reason Uber lobbies governments is to protect its business model. This model relies on the privatization of profits and the socialization of risks – and these “risks” include responsibility for the employment rights of its workers. Already, there have been attempts to regulate this business model. Last year, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers were “workers” rather than “self-employed”. In the coming months, members of the European Parliament will consider a proposal to regulate worker rights for Uber and other similar platforms.
Politicians must now learn from the Uber records and break the spell.