Uber Files: Company wrote its own law, worked closely with Netanyahu

The revelations came from documents referred to as "The Uber Files" obtained by The Guardians and shared with the ICIJ.

The logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone (photo credit: REUTERS/SERGIO PEREZ)
The logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone
(photo credit: REUTERS/SERGIO PEREZ)

Uber wrote its own draft bill that was presented to the Knesset three times, asked US and Israeli ambassadors to have investigations against the company closed and received help from then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office to try and enter the market in Israel, according to an investigation shared by the Shomrim (The Guardians) organization.

The revelations came from documents referred to as "The Uber Files" obtained by The Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and 42 other media partners. Shomrim is the representative for ICIJ in Israel.

The documents include about 124,000 emails, text messages, company presentations and other documents from 2013 to 2017, as Uber entered cities while violating local laws and regulations, dodging taxes and acting against the taxi industry.

The documents also show that Uber used stealth technology to thwart government investigations, including a form of "kill switch" that cut access to company servers in order to prevent authorities from seizing evidence while raiding Uber offices in at least six countries.

“We’re just f***ing illegal.”

Nairi Hourdajian, former head of Uber’s global communications.

“We’re just f***ing illegal,” Nairi Hourdajian, then head of Uber’s global communications, wrote to a colleague amid efforts to shut down the service in India and Thailand.

 An unauthorised device displays a version of the Uber logo on a vehicle in Manhattan, New York City, New York, US, November 17, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY) An unauthorised device displays a version of the Uber logo on a vehicle in Manhattan, New York City, New York, US, November 17, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY)

The company also had a list of over 1,850 sitting and former public officials, think tanks and citizens groups in nearly 30 countries and the EU it hoped to influence, according to the ICIJ.

Last week, Uber announced that it is relaunching operations in Israel and appointing a new Israel general manager. In addition, Uber has committed to operating with licensed taxis in Israel.

Uber and Netanyahu

Internal emails from Uber revealed in the investigation showed that the company's leaders met with then prime minister Netanyahu who expressed his support for Uber to enter the Israeli market and fought with then Transportation Minister Israel Katz on the matter.

Then director-general of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), Eli Groner, advised the company on what messaging to push in order to gain support from the Israeli public. Groner even asked Uber officials to communicate with him through his personal email and not through his government account.

According to Shomrim, Uber first attempted to enter Israel in 2014 and was immediately met by opposition from Katz. The company believed Katz was opposing Uber because of his connections with taxi drivers who "had clout" in the Likud Party. Uber believed that it could solve the issue by going through the PMO and, in 2015, an official in the company met with an official at the PMO, although it is unclear who they met with.

After extended efforts, Uber officials managed to organize a meeting with Netanyahu at Davos World Economic Forum in 2016. "I have a one-on-one meeting with the director of the office of the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office tomorrow," Uber Israel director-general Yoni Greifman wrote to colleagues, according to Shomrim. "He's a friend and I'll ask him what could affect Bibi (a nickname for Netanyahu)."

Another Uber internal email said that the purpose of the meeting with Netanyahu was to "Build a relationship of trust; gaining his support in exerting political pressure on the transportation minister (…) and emphasizing that Uber is reconsidering continuing its path and investing in Israel due to the negative atmosphere in which it is received."

The meeting between then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Netanyahu was seen as very successful, with Netanyahu proceeding to confront Katz on the issue during a cabinet meeting, leading to a heated debate between the two, according to reports by Israeli media.

According to a handwritten note made by one of those present in the meeting between Netanyahu and Kalanick that was shared in one of the leaked emails, Netanyahu stated "We will break resistance. Let's work in parallel."

Uber officials were conflicted on how to proceed, with some wanting to leverage the reports in Israeli media to gain support, while others stressed the need to work in coordination with Netanyahu's office, saying they would ask Groner what he thought would be effective.

While Netanyahu, Groner and Katz did not respond to requests by Shomrim for a response, Greifman told the organization "I do not know from where you bring the things you are bringing. In relation to most of them, I have no idea what you are talking about."

Uber and the ambassadors

The Uber Files also revealed how the company contacted the Israeli ambassador to Washington and the US ambassador to Israel in an attempt to stop an investigation against the company in Israel.

The opposition the company faced in entering Israel made the country a priority for the company, with Mark MacGann, Uber’s head of policy in Europe, Africa and the Middle East writing in an internal email in 2015, "Because Tel Aviv is burning, I want to be CCed on everything to do with Israel."

The "burning" MacGann referred to was a criminal investigation opened in 2015 by the Transportation Ministry against Uber, the company's director-general in Israel and the drivers who worked for them.

"I am working to keep our people in Israel out of jail," McGann wrote to one of his colleagues, according to Shomrim. Officials in the company discussed options, including contacting pro-Israel members of Congress, but in the end decided to hire the Covington & Burling law firm in Washington, DC to contact senior officials in Israel to "pressure these guys to calm down."

"The Transportation Ministry has reacted much more aggressively than one might expect (…) The taxi drivers in Tel Aviv are highly connected (…) We have lawyers from here to eternity, but with the upcoming elections we are looking for a way to lower the temperature, more than a permanent solution. We just do not want to see our guys end up in jail just to satisfy the taxi drivers on the way to the polls," said the company to the law firm.

According to leaked internal emails, Stuart Eizenstat, a senior adviser in the firm who was assigned to the case, contacted Dan Shapiro, then US ambassador to Israel, and Ron Dermer, then Israeli ambassador to the US.

According to Eizenstat's emails, the conversations he had with the two ambassadors were of a "familiar and unofficial nature," with Dermer asking him to pass on the background material via his private mail "to ensure a quick response on his part."

The adviser wrote that he asked the ambassador to work with the Foreign Ministry to halt the investigation against Uber. "Dermer was sympathetic. He supports the free market and investments in Israel. He promised to act and to understand the motivation behind the Transportation Ministry's investigation," Eizenstat wrote, according to Shomrim.

Eizenstat also contacted Shapiro with a list of lines that Uber wanted to stress, such as that "the US has a key interest in ensuring that American companies receive fair treatment" and that "Uber should not be a victim of the upcoming Knesset elections." Shapiro responded that "We want to help an American company, but care must be taken if there is a criminal indictment."

Shapiro added that he would look into the matter with embassy staff and that there was no need to involve the US State Department. He also offered to meet with Uber officials in Israel.

It is unclear how Shapiro and Dermer acted outside of the communications that were leaked. 

Dermer told Shomrim that American companies sometimes turn to the Israeli embassy on certain matters and that Israeli officials will listen to the companies' claims, even if they have no intention of changing or influencing policy. The former Israeli ambassador added that he does not remember the details of his communications with Uber.

"At no point did I act in favor of Uber or any other company while serving as ambassador to the United States. That is simply not true. Throughout my tenure I acted only to advance the interests of the State of Israel," said Dermer.

While an indictment was filed against the company in 2017, it was later dropped by the Transportation Ministry.

Uber legislates its own regulations

The Uber Files also revealed that a bill drafted by the company itself which would regulate its activities in Israel was presented to the Knesset three times for approval, with the latest attempt taking place in October 2021.

The company first began promoting the bill in 2014, a few months after opening an office in the country. "We are skeptical about the ability of this law to pass, but the idea is to pressure the Transportation Minister to change the existing regulation," wrote Greifman to his colleagues.

"The bill is important because it has the potential to be the basis for future regulatory changes and media debates. Members of the Knesset will most likely make amendments to the proposal before signing it, but I want us to be coordinated on the starting point."

The bill was submitted the first time by then Likud MK Moshe Feiglin who told Shomrim that he does not remember who helped draft the bill, but that he still stands completely behind it. The bill failed to pass.

The bill was submitted again in 2016 with the support of MK Amir Ohana, Betzalel Smotrich, Yoav Ben Tzur, Meirav Ben Ari, Uri Maklev and Yehuda Glick, among others, but failed. In 2021, it was submitted for a third time with the support of MKs Nir Orbach, Eitan Ginzberg, Idit Silman and Yorai Lahav-Hertzano.

The leaked emails show that the company met with income tax officials and contacted Boaz Toporovsky, who now serves as chairman of the Yesh Atid list. The company hoped Toporovsky would lead the campaign to make shared rides legal and he asked for materials to help him persuade party leader Yair Lapid to support the move.

Toporovsky stressed to Shomrim that he supported Uber's entrance into the Israeli market as a solution to help lower the number of vehicles on the road and make transportation cheaper and safer. "All my work on the subject stemmed solely from these interests while being transparent and efficient for the citizens of Israel," said Toporovsky.

Uber: New CEO 'rewrote the company's values'

In response to the latest investigation, Uber's spokesperson stated that the company has been transformed since 2017, when Dara Khosrowshahi began serving as the company's CEO. 

"There has been no shortage of reporting on Uber’s mistakes prior to 2017. Thousands of stories have been published, multiple books have been written—there’s even been a TV series," said Uber spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker in a statement to ICIJ. "Five years ago, those mistakes culminated in one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America. That reckoning led to an enormous amount of public scrutiny, a number of high-profile lawsuits, multiple government investigations, and the termination of several senior executives."

"Dara rewrote the company’s values, revamped the leadership team, made safety a top company priority, implemented best-in-class corporate governance, hired an independent board chair, and installed the rigorous controls and compliance necessary to operate as a public company," added Hazelbaker. "When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally: 90 percent of current Uber employees joined after Dara became CEO."

The spokesperson added that the company has "moved from an era of confrontation to one of collaboration" and was regulated and working to find common ground with labor unions and taxi companies.

"We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values. Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come," added the spokesperson.