Uber whistleblower Mark MacGann source of Uber Files data leak

(David Levene/Guardian)

MacGann, the public face of the company’s tumultuous European expansion, said he leaked the trove of documents to make up for his role in its aggressive practices: “We had actually sold people a lie.”

Mark MacGann, the former high-ranking Uber executive who served as the company’s public face in Europe during a tumultuous period of expansion, revealed himself Monday as the whistleblower behind blockbuster revelations into the ride-hailing company’s inner workings.

A longtime European lobbyist, MacGann interacted with top global business and government leaders during his tenure with the company between 2014 and 2016 but also came face-to-face with the violent protests over Uber’s disruptive practices.

He said he left the company having concluded that Uber’s culture left him powerless to question or change its ways, and fearing that the rancorous backlash against the company put his family’s safety at risk.

MacGann leaked more than 124,000 company documents to the Guardian, which shared the materials with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which helped lead the project, and dozens of other news organizations, including The Washington Post. The Uber Files, which date to between 2013 and 2017, reveal the ride-hailing company’s aggressive entrance into cities around the world — while frequently challenging the reach of existing laws and regulations.

Read takeaways from the Uber Files investigation

MacGann, 52, came forward in a video interview with the Guardian published Monday. As the chief lobbyist charged with pushing Uber’s European expansion, MacGann said he bears some responsibility for company actions he now condemns — including the way it wooed governments and the public with rosy visions of upward mobility and economic freedom for low-income drivers.

Pulling back the curtain on the company’s operations during those years — even exposing communications that show his role in some of Uber’s more controversial practices — is his attempt to make amends, he said.

“I was the one talking to governments, I was the one pushing this with the media, I was the one telling people that they should change the rules because drivers were going to benefit and people were going to get so much economic opportunity,” he said. “When that turned out not to be the case — we had actually sold people a lie — how can you have a clear conscience if you don’t stand up and own your contribution to how people are being treated today?”

But MacGann ultimately faulted the company for what he said was its willingness “to break all the rules and use its money and its power, to impact, to destroy.”

Uber spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said “mistakes” made earlier in Uber’s history led five years ago to “one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America,” which involved lawsuits, investigations and several departures from the ranks of executive leadership.

“We have not and will not make excuses for past behavior that is clearly not in line with our present values,” she said. “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.”

Regarding MacGann, though, Uber spokesman Noah Edwardsen said in a statement Monday that “he is in no position to speak credibly about Uber today.” He said that “Mark had only praise for Uber when he left the company six years ago,” citing a departure email in which he called himself “a strong believer in Uber’s mission.”

MacGann and Uber recently settled a legal dispute out of court that the Guardian reported related to compensation. Uber’s spokesman said Monday that MacGann was paid 550,000 euros (about $554,000). “It is noteworthy that Mark felt compelled to ‘blow the whistle’ only after his check cleared,” Edwardsen said.

MacGann had previously acknowledged that “certainly, I have had my grievances with Uber in the past.” On Monday, after Uber released its statement, he said his conversations with the Guardian began in December, five months before Uber moved to settle his legal dispute, and that “my lawyers are still fighting for me to receive the full payment.” He said he put no restrictions on when journalists could use the documents he leaked to them.

MacGann added: “The data I have made public speaks for itself.”

MacGann is the latest whistleblower who has gone public about a decision to leak confidential documents that have illuminated how some of the world’s most powerful and consequential players operate, including tech giants and governmental agencies.

In 2013, former government contractor Edward Snowden revealed himself as the confidential source who provided documents to the Guardian and The Post, which exposed the National Security Agency’s vast global surveillance programs. In 2018, former Cambridge Analytica research director Christopher Wylie shared materials with journalists that showed how the data firm improperly harvested data from millions of Facebook users to target voters on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign. And in 2021, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen shared confidential company documents with the Wall Street Journal, and later the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, that showed the company failing to thwart the spread of false and incendiary content. The Facebook Papers, like the Uber Files, were reviewed by a consortium of news organizations, including The Post.

Whistleblowing can lead to major investigations, prosecutions and new laws. Although their motivations may be complex, corporate or government leakers often express a belief that public disclosure of confidential activities is the only way to guarantee the change they hope to see.

MacGann is an Irishman who speaks fluent French and spent more than two decades as a tech, telecommunications and financial services lobbyist throughout Europe before joining Uber. He began working for the company as a consultant in summer 2014.

Months later, he was brought onto the staff as a chief lobbyist with a tall order: courting governments in more than 40 countries across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It was a role that placed him at the nexus of power at a whirlwind moment for the company. A business world still in thrall to the rise of tech companies like Google and Facebook perceived Uber as a next big thing; investors vied to get in on the ground floor, and top talent signed on for executive roles with the hope of stock options that could turn into mini-fortunes.

Uber was “the hottest ticket in town, and to a certain extent, both on the investor side and also on the political side, people were almost falling over themselves in order to meet with Uber and to hear what we had to offer,” said MacGann, who suddenly found he had personal access to world leaders and their advisers. It was an “intoxicating” experience, he said.

But the company was facing resistance in several countries, primarily from taxi drivers who couldn’t compete with the low fares offered by Uber, whose drivers in new cities were heavily subsidized, at first, with millions of dollars in investor capital. Protests erupted in Berlin, London and Paris. Local courts in Germany had restricted some of Uber’s services. MacGann was put in charge of a team tasked with lobbying governments to allow Uber to make inroads, sometimes in the face of legal or regulatory hurdles.

In media interviews and speaking engagements throughout his tenure, MacGann declared that Uber was not “anti-regulation” but simply a “tech company” using data to match supply with demand — and that’s why, he argued, it shouldn’t have to abide by the old regulatory models for the taxi industry.

Now, MacGann summarizes Uber’s strategy as one of simply barging into new markets and expanding as best it could, despite awareness that it may well be violating local laws.

“The mantra that people repeated from one office to another was the mantra from the top,” MacGann said. “Don’t ask for permission. Just launch, hustle, enlist drivers, go out, do the marketing, and quickly people will wake up and see what a great thing Uber is.”

Devon Spurgeon, a spokeswoman for Uber founder and then-chief executive Travis Kalanick, said in a statement that Uber’s “expansion activities were led by over a hundred leaders in dozens of countries around the world and at all times under the direct oversight and with the full approval of Uber’s robust legal policy, and compliance groups.” Kalanick helped pioneer a business model that “required a change of the status quo, as Uber became a serious competitor in an industry where competition had been historically outlawed,” she added.

In a statement sent to The Post after MacGann had unmasked himself Monday, Spurgeon said “we have no comment at this point.”

The Uber Files also implicate MacGann, though, along with his former colleagues, in some of Uber’s more hard-charging business practices. They show him personally appealing to Emmanuel Macron, then the economy minister for France, after a local official in the city of Marseille banned an Uber service in 2015, and participating in an aggressive lobbying and influence campaign to try to solidify a foothold in Russia.

And MacGann played a role in the conversations around protests against Uber that had erupted in some European cities — sometimes involving physical attacks against Uber drivers — according to the internal communications the lobbyist leaked.

Uber leveraged violent attacks against its drivers to pressure politicians

In a text message exchange from January 2016, Kalanick urged his top lieutenants to organize a counterprotest in Paris, and appeared to downplay concerns “about taxi violence” against Uber drivers. “I think it’s worth it,” Kalanick wrote. “Violence guarantee success.”

Spurgeon said the former executive “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety. Any accusation that Mr. Kalanick directed, engaged in, or was involved in any of these activities is completely false.” Hazelbaker, the Uber spokeswoman, acknowledged past mistakes in how drivers were treated, especially in the years that Kalanick ran the company, but said that no one, including Kalanick, wanted to see violence against Uber drivers.

In his interview with the Guardian, MacGann said he thinks Kalanick “meant that the only way to get governments to change the rules, and legalize Uber and allow Uber to grow, as Uber wished, would be to keep the fight, to keep the controversy burning. And if that meant Uber drivers going on strike, Uber drivers doing a demo in the streets, Uber drivers blocking Barcelona, blocking Berlin, blocking Paris, then that was the way to go.”

MacGann added: “Of course it’s dangerous. It’s also, in a way, very selfish. Because he was not the guy on the street who is being threatened, who is being attacked, who is being beaten up and, in some cases, shot.”

MacGann had been part of that text exchange, as one of the voices raising concerns about safety. But emails from several months earlier show MacGann praising a 2015 corporate strategy to encourage media coverage of violence against Uber drivers in the Netherlands.

“There is no excuse for how the company played with people’s lives,” MacGann said in a statement. “I am disgusted and ashamed that I was a party to the trivialisation of such violence.”

Angry taxi drivers who felt their livelihoods were threatened by Uber saw MacGann as the face of Uber and, at times, aimed their ire at him. He said he received death threats on Twitter and harassment at airports and train stations, and that taxi drivers followed him, recorded where he lived and posted photos online of him with his children. “They needed someone to shout at. They needed somebody to intimidate, somebody to threaten,” MacGann said. “I became that person.”

In one incident, he said, a group of taxi protesters in Rome blocked a car carrying him and a colleague away from a meeting with an adviser to the Italian prime minister. The harassment persisted even after he cut ties with Uber; in 2017, police were called after he said taxi drivers surrounded his Uber ride outside a train station in Brussels.

MacGann said he does not blame those who lashed out at him and shares their frustration with Uber’s business practices. He was dismayed that the company’s only reaction to the threats against him was to assign him bodyguards. “There was no change in behavior,” MacGann said. “No change in tactics. No change in tone. It was, keep the fight, keep the fire burning.”

MacGann said he didn’t see how to promote fundamental change from the inside. In November 2015, he announced his resignation, around the same time several other top executives also left.

“This was not a culture where you could actually stand up and question the company’s decisions or the company’s strategy,” he said. “I realized that I was having no impact, that I was wasting my time with the company, and that feeling, at that point in my career, combined with the fact that I was worried not just for my own safety, but the safety of my family and my friends.”

MacGann later received a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, which a March 2019 medical report said was linked in part to the stress he experienced during his time at Uber.

MacGann did not share those concerns publicly at the time. He told the Financial Times that his 18 months thus far at Uber was “like five years anywhere else … it’s all consuming, but it feels like a privilege.” He told the Wall Street Journal that he was confident the company had “turned a corner” in Europe and that “it’s hard to leave what is unquestionably the most exciting enterprise of our generation.”

Rachel Whetstone, then Uber’s communications and public policy chief, called MacGann “a wonderful leader” who helped the company recognize “the need for modern regulations that promote safety while also increasing choice.” David Plouffe, then Uber’s head of global policy, called him “a terrific advocate for Uber on three continents.” Both have since left the company.

MacGann stayed at Uber as a consultant until August 2016. In November of that year he joined Russian-owned telecommunications firm VimpelCom, which several month earlier had reached a $835 million settlement on U.S. and Dutch bribery charges. Later, he started his own company.

But his time with Uber remained with him long after his stint ended.

“I own what I did, but if it turns out that what I was trying to persuade governments, ministers, prime ministers, presidents and drivers, turned out to be horribly, horribly wrong and untrue, then it’s incumbent upon me to go back and say, ‘I think we made a mistake,’ ” MacGann told the Guardian. “To the extent that people want me to help, I want to play a role in trying to correct that mistake.”

Aaron C. Davis and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Leave a Comment