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Rape in Delhi rang alarm bells in HQ: Uber scrambled to guard reputation, blamed local officials

Flurry of emails reveals panic, wariness over ban in Delhi.

Delhi rape survivor’s case and subsequent developments also contributed to the exit of Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. (Express Photo)

Hundreds of emails and internal communications of the Uber top brass reveal the panic inside the company’s headquarters in San Francisco after a woman passenger was raped in an Uber cab by its driver in New Delhi on December 5, 2014.

Data from The Uber Files — the emails and internal documents were obtained by The Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with which The Indian Express has partnered for this investigation — point to a worldwide damage-control exercise, leading to events in 2017 wherein the Delhi rape survivor’s case and subsequent developments also contributed to the exit of Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.

There are two distinct threads that emerge from the available Uber communications relating to the New Delhi rape case.

One, that the company immediately took the line that it was the “flawed’’ Indian system of Background Checks (BGCs) of drivers that led to the accused, Shiv Kumar Yadav, committing a second sexual harassment offence.

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Two, that besides putting additional safety features on its ride-sharing app, Uber needed urgent damage control to prevent a “reputational” fallout in other global markets.

Immediately after the rape incident, on December 9, 2014, Jordan Condo, Uber’s Head of Public Policy in Asia, wrote to the company’s top honchos, giving a dramatic description. “It is important that we show compassion and express our willingness to develop a longer term solution to stop this pandemic of violence against women in India,” he wrote. Others on the trail mail replied with suggestions on technology upgrade and asked for a country-wise spreadsheet on BGCs for both licensed and non-licensed “products” (drivers).

But the unmistakable effort, the internal communications show, was to pitch the blame on Indian authorities. Consider these telling excerpts from what Uber bosses wrote to each other:

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— Mark MacGann, then Uber’s Head of Public Policy for Europe and Middle East, wrote on December 8: “We’re in crisis talks right now and the media is blazing…The Indian driver was indeed licensed, and the weakness/flaw appears to be in the local licensing scheme… the view in the US is that we can expect inquiries across our markets on the issue of background checks, in the light of what has happened in India.’’

— Among the senior-most, Niall Wass, then Uber’s Senior Vice President for Europe, Middle East and Africa, wrote to the entire office team on December 9: “We had done what was required in terms of the Indian regulations. However it’s clear the checks required for a driver to obtain a commercial license from the authorities now appears to be insufficient as it appears the accused also had some previous rape allegations, which the Delhi police check did not identify (in what’s called a ‘character certificate.’).”

— One week after the rape incident, Mark MacGann again sent an email to his team: “we are in the process of platinum-plating our background checks in other regions, given the issue in India (where the official State system is at fault, not Uber).”

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The rape incident resulted in a “worst-case scenario” for Uber in the Capital. The Delhi government banned its services, and it took seven months and an intervention from the Delhi High Court for Uber cabs to be back on the roads.

Now, records reveal that the company had serious apprehensions that the ban in Delhi could have a domino effect on operations in other cities as well.

There are email exchanges between Juan Batiz, a senior executive, and David Plouffe, Uber’s high-profile Vice President for policy and strategy, who was an advisor to US President Barack Obama prior to joining the unicorn.

In the exchange dated December 11, 2014, and titled “threats”, Batiz argues Uber’s case: The fact is that we are not taxis, hence taxi regulations do not apply to us. I think taxis are really looking to get rid of current burdensome and corrupt requirements which they face today more than banning Uber like products…”

In the communication, Plouffe is also informed about how the City Taxi Association in Mexico had filed a lawsuit asking why a service like Uber should not be banned. He wrote, “In their communication, the association makes reference to countries that have banned the service and also mentions India’s most unfortunate events.”

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Plouffe then does a round-up of “threats” from other countries and writes to colleagues, “wondering if you are concerned — and it’s not directly connected to India but gives them more courage on the unlicensed argument especially — about any other cities/countries strengthening their arguments against us/taking action.” He also asks top Uber Managers: “Can you guys lay out other places where you think in light of India/reputation issues, you could see courts or regulators find a way or reason to shut us down.”

The most significant step Uber took after the New Delhi rape incident was to introduce two new In-app features in India: the receipt of a ‘send feature’ and an SOS button. Incidentally, one of Uber’s communication managers, Benjamin Novick, cautioned others that the new feature should not be called a ‘panic button’ but an ‘SOS’ feature instead.

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And in an email dated December 23, 2014, Plouffe gives away the insecurity gripping the company. He writes, “Driver verification capabilities will be a necessity — we are exceedingly vulnerable there and only a matter of time before we have an incident (Chicago could be it, hope not) where that becomes a global problem for us.”

Other emails from January 2015 show that the rape incident was certainly on the mind of the Uber top brass, including Kalanick who decided to postpone his proposed visit to India.

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Allen Penn, Uber’s then Asia Head, listed the advantages of pushing forward the India trip for Travis. His reasons: One, “have a lead time for high level meetings (eg PM and Cabinet).” Two, “Let the air clear further on the rape, giving space for a higher success rate on Government and business meetings.” And three, “Get Delhi back live… and thus not have that ban cloud.”

First published on: 10-07-2022 at 09:30:50 pm
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