Now we can say that life for big tech firms appears increasingly different from how it was five years ago. Then, Uber utilized a hidden “kill switch” to thwart police’s probe of its data systems in over 12 countries.
The company forged into places where its service-economy methods broke city rules, rising above the mayors’ heads, and courting presidents with serious charm offensives that witnessed the then-French economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, effect personal calls on the company’s behalf to settle its regulatory issues.
This and more became clear in emails and text messages, plus over 124,000 confidential documents revealed to the Guardian that showed how Uber officials were aware they were acting beyond the law and jokingly called themselves “pirates” and “f—ing illegal”.
Meanwhile, the company says it has transformed itself since 2017 under the leadership of Dara Khosrowshahi, its chief executive officer. And it’s now a different firm today from the one the founder, Travis Kalanick began.
The documents even underscored how much change the tech founder has created.
The good and bad of giant techs
For years, the big tech founders and officials believe they can move quickly and break laws and city rules because they believe they’re making humans live better in the long run.
For instance, Mark Zuckerberg has justified playing loose and fast with regulators and users’ data because he thinks he’s fulfilling the mission of connecting people globally.
Also, Elon Musk seemed to see regulatory fines as a price of running a business and pioneering an electric car revolution that helps address climate change.
Now, the wool seems to be pulled back from people’s eyes. For many, Facebook might have created more to polarize users than to connect them.
For Musk, Tesla Inc has been evasive about its environmental footprint, causing critics to question its safety standards.
And while Uber is making transportation easier globally, the dream is beginning to go amidst its rising fare cost.
Also, tens of thousands of leaked confidential files have revealed a history of lobbying, lawbreaking, and exploiting violence against drivers. The record shows a treasure trove of unlawful and sketchy altitudes from Uber.
The files were initially shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Guardian. They showed that Uber has knowingly broken laws and has gone to some lengths to avoid justice.
The leak reveals that the company also secretly lobbied governments, got aid from prominent politicians, and exploited violence against drivers to increase its business.
It’s not wrong to say Uber’s unscrupulous ways have helped it establish an empire. However, it also resulted in regulatory and political blowback that became more humbling amidst its fight to achieve profitability.
In the twist of fate, the antitrust authorities are becoming tougher on tech giants’ deals. For example, they reversed Facebook purchases. And admitting they permitted big techs like Alphabet Inc and Meta to scoop up several competitors.
Attempts to tame the big techs’ aggressive growth methods
Since early 2022, there has been an increase in the need to tame some giant techs’ excessiveness.
For example, US lawmakers have been raring to tame the giant techs’ aggressive growth approach with tougher regulations, which was instigated by revelations from Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower.
For the past years, giant techs can get away from disrupting the laws because there were few restrictions on digital marketplaces. That’s why Facebook and Uber lawyers could argue they’re technology firms and not subject to the rules governing taxi or media companies.
Everything is changing now. Antitrust authorities have upgraded their guidelines to properly deal with the software complexities as Europe wants to introduce strict regulations concerning online content, similar to strict rules in India and Japan.
It’ll be interesting to witness how a Delaware judge would rule on Elon Musk’s abandoning his Twitter deal. On Tuesday, Twitter sued Elon Musk for violating his $44 billion deal to purchase Twitter and told a Delaware court to order him to finish the merger at the concluded $54.20 per Twitter share.
The lawsuit accused the billionaire of violating the merger agreement that “has cast a pall over Twitter and its business.” A judgment against the billionaire could further portray that the period of operating above the law for giant techs is over.
For Uber, its reckoning has witnessed mixed sides. The court challenges have forced the company to pay its UK drivers a minimum wage. However, the company is yet to face punishment for designing a ghost app to thwart the scrutiny against it by city officials with the Greyball tool.
Uber’s aggressive lobbying and marketing strategy hasn’t helped it to have a sustainable business model. It hasn’t also helped it to turn a yearly profit. The company’s share price has gone down to about 50% since early 2022, eclipsing several other tech firms’ losses.
Some younger ride-hailing companies like Estonia’s Bolt Technology OU have taken advantage of the lobbying and situation to launch their business, though with less investment in public policy to provide cheaper fares.
Indirectly, Uber’s courting of politicians might have helped its competitors, maybe temporarily. In particular, Bolt has recently raised its prices, making San Francisco’s taxis or London Black Cabs more attractive during a surge in prices.
Uber’s strategy is identical to other Silicon Valley tech founders who ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Unlike before, the authorities are now holding the tech companies accountable.