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Disrupting Democracy

How Uber Deploys Corporate Power to Overwhelm and Undermine Local Government

We are running a political campaign and the candidate is Uber … And this political race is happening in every major city in the world. And because this isn’t about a democracy, this is about a product, you can’t win 51 to 49. You have to win 98 to 2. — Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

From Uber Technologies’ origins in 2009 as a San Francisco startup to its current $50 billion valuation, the transportation network company has in just seven years grown into a powerful global corporation. Today Uber operates in 195 U.S. cities, 396 worldwide. This report tells the stories of conflicts between the company and local governments in eight U.S. cities: Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; New York City, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; and Washington, D.C.

This giant and powerful corporation portrays itself as the scrappy rival to entrenched interests, but it is in fact able to deploy far greater political power than its public interest and commercial rivals. In cities across the country, Uber is ”disrupting” local democracy.

Uber’s primary business is connecting riders with drivers, who the company calls “partners,” through a smartphone app. Through the app, Uber offers a range of versions of its service in various markets. There’s “UberBlack,” the original Uber service, through which riders summon high-end vehicles such as limousines. There’s “UberTaxi,” which enables riders in some markets to hail a taxicab through the app instead of hailing from the street. And there’s “UberX,” the lower-cost service most frequently associated with the company and which most directly competes with local taxi drivers, through which riders summon drivers who use their personal cars to provide rides for hire. Fares, which can “surge” as much as eight times the base in times of high demand, are automatically charged to the rider’s credit card through the app, which also automatically divides the fare between the driver and the parent corporation. The company owns no vehicles itself and claims to employ no drivers. The company considers its driver-partners independent contractors,.

In each case examined in this report, Uber’s expansion has been facilitated through the conversion of money power into political power. When city officials try to enact laws or enforce regulations the company opposes, it fights back political-style campaign tactics and large-scale lobbying. There is no doubt that Uber has developed a business model that is very attractive to many consumers, nor that taxi service is problematic in many cities. But that is not the point. The issue is whether Uber’s practices comport with well-functioning local democracies.

There is a pattern to Uber’s conflicts with cities. The company often launches in cities in defiance of local officials’ interpretations of local regulations, while at the same time insisting on the legality of its business. When local law enforcement and other officials respond, the company mobilizes a campaign to “save Uber.” Likewise, the company resists local legislative efforts that attempt to require the company to follow standards similar to those required of taxicab and limousine companies, framing them as attempts to “shut down” Uber. Because customers are required to provide an email address to access the company’s app, the company is uniquely poised to turn its customer base into grassroots lobbyists who will sign a “save Uber” petition when the company asks. These petitions, which can generate tens of thousands of signatures, help legitimize the lobbying campaigns the company deploys. These campaigns often include high-powered lobbyists, including some who are former colleagues of the government officials they are lobbying. Uber usually wins these battles against rules and regulations the company opposes, but when it loses, it keeps fighting. When cities pass laws that Uber opposes, the company commonly seeks to have them preempted with Uber-approved state law or repealed through voter referenda.

The businesses in most direct competition with Uber in cities are taxicabs and limousines. When local lawmakers attempt to require Uber to follow standards similar to these companies, those lawmakers are accursed of pursuing a “protectionist” or “anticompetitive” agenda as a “favor” for the “taxi cartel.” While it may be true that certain kinds of regulations are easier for taxis to incorporate into their business model than Uber, it does not necessarily follow that the purpose of those regulations is to prevent Uber from competing. Nevertheless, this messaging helps Uber, a multibillion-dollar multinational corporation, present itself as a scrappy rebel against “Big Taxi” – an appearance that obscures the real and significant advantages Uber brings to these local regulatory battles.

In addition to Uber’s sheer money power, its ability to mobilize email subscribers to sign grassroots petitions and its centralized lobbying strategy efforts (led by President Barack Obama’s veteran campaign strategist David Plouffe), the company also has far greater political leverage than the local taxi companies with which it competes. In major cities, taxi business owners hold special licenses, called “medallions,” which in some cases have been valued at over $1 million; taxi companies commonly own and maintain fleets of vehicles; and these companies often employ a sizeable, and sometimes unionized, labor force. The fact that Uber’s sole corporate presence within a community is through the smartphone app its drivers and customers use means that Uber can credibly threaten to abandon any given locality with little threat to its overall bottom line. In these scenarios, all Uber stands to lose is the prospect of increased future growth. The same cannot be said of taxies, most of which are locally operated and whose sizeable investments, including medallions, fleets and drivers, are too great to walk away from without incurring devastating losses.

National controversies, such as sexist remarks by Kalanick and another executive’s suggestion that the company spy on critical journalists, have occasionally put Uber on defense. As a result, Uber has tried to put on a “softer” face — in particular, the face of campaign strategist David Plouffe. While it may be true that Plouffe’s arrival heralded the transformation of Uber into a business with a more professionally coordinated and strategically intentional public message and political agenda, it is not as The Wall Street Journal characterizes it, “kinder” and “gentler.” Whatever this transformation might be, it is not a retreat. Uber, to use a metaphor often deployed around its conflicts with cities, is on the warpath. Democracy is, too often, a casualty.

The eight case studies in this report describe Uber’s clashes with city governments in Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; New York City, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; and Washington, D.C. This list of cities where Uber has attempted to force the dismantling and rewriting of regulations is by no means exhaustive. Nevertheless, the case studies (which are in alphabetical order by city name) illustrate the corporation’s pattern of making government prioritize the demands of a profit-driven corporation.

Read the full report.