Uber paid six-figure sums to academics for research to feed the media | Uber
Uber paid top academics in Europe and the United States hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce reports that could be used in the company’s lobbying campaign.
The Uber files, a cache of thousands of confidential documents leaked to the Guardian, reveal lucrative deals with several leading academics who have been paid to publish research on the benefits of its business model. The reports were commissioned as Uber struggled with regulators in major cities around the world.
Academic economists have been targeted in France and Germany where enforcement by authorities has been increasingly fierce in 2014-15.
A report by a French academic, who requested an advisory fee of €100,000, was cited in a 2016 report Financial Times report as proof that Uber was a “route out of the French suburbs”, delighting Uber executives.
Using techniques common in party political campaigns, Uber targeted academics and think tanks to help it build a positive narrative that it created well-paying jobs drivers loved, provided good transportation market to consumers and increased productivity.
Documents show how his lobbyists planned to use academic research as part of a production line for political ammunition that could be fed to politicians and the media.
The goal was to use the research to increase pressure to change the rules Uber was bending. Although Uber’s involvement in the reports was mentioned, leaked files reveal how it wanted to use the work of academics and their reputations to achieve its goals, and how much it was willing to pay them.
In France, the €100,000 advisory deal was brokered with a rising star in academic economics, Professor Augustin Landier of the Toulouse School of Economics. Landier agreed to produce a report that he described in emails to Uber’s policy and communications team as “actionable for direct public relations to prove Uber’s positive economic role.”
Landier offered to collaborate with David Thesmar, another renowned professor from France’s top business school, Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris (HEC).
In discussions in February 2015, Uber executives noted that while the price was high, it was worth it, especially if they worked through the messages in the report “to make sure it’s not presented in a potentially negative light”.
The report came amid an intense debate over job losses caused by Uber, with Emmanuel Macron, who was then France’s economy minister, trying to push through economic changes.
A member of Uber’s policy team wrote at the time that “quantified validation of the new kind of work Uber is creating in Europe, especially when led by an economist of Landier’s renowned stature, we would help tremendously.”
The researchers were excited about Uber’s data because it provided them with rare real-time evidence of the effect of prices on markets – one of the key issues among liberal economists advocating for free markets.
In return for the consultancy fee, Landier also wanted to produce a separate unpaid study using Uber data. The leak shows that Uber executives were concerned that “we were losing editorial control”, but a senior executive concluded: “We see low risk here because we can work with Landier to frame the study and we also decide what data we share with him. ”
The day before Landier and Thesmar’s report was published in March 2016, the FT article quoting it appeared. “Ridesharing apps have created jobs for Paris’s poorest youth, but a regulatory crackdown is looming,” the article said.
Thesmar was quoted in the article as saying that Uber was a “social game changer”.
The report had a third co-author, Daniel Szomoru, an in-house economist at Uber. Although his employment and college advising agreement with Uber were acknowledged in a footnote, details of the charges were not. Neither Szomoru nor the fact that the report was paid for by Uber was mentioned in the FT article.
Some of the report’s key qualifiers don’t appear in the press, including the academics’ conclusion that Uber drivers who don’t make a lot of money tend to leave the platform.
The report details how these drivers received “payments” of an average of €19.90 per hour. But this did not take into account the substantial costs that drivers have to pay – such as car hire, insurance and fuel – which had to be deducted from this average “payment” before earnings could be calculated. In the history of the FT, which was retweeted by Landier and others, it became simply: “Most earn €20 an hour, more than double the Smic”.
Uber was thrilled with the FT story. “Wow!” one person wrote, congratulating the team that “got it.”
The FT said its article was based on its own extensive field reports which covered the downsides of driving for Uber, including low wages, as well as the benefits, and that it had not been approached or informed about proactively by Uber. He cited experts other than Thesmar and clarified that his work was based on Uber data, and he stood by his reports, a spokesperson said.
Landier and Thesmar said their paid advice for Uber was declared and transparent. They declined to comment further.