Mark MacGann, a veteran lobbyist who led Uber's extensive efforts to curry favour with governments across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has stepped into the spotlight to reveal his identity as the person behind the leak of more than 124,000 company documents to the Guardian.
MacGann's decision to come forward is the result of his belief that Uber has knowingly flouted regulations in numerous countries and misled drivers about the benefits of its gig-economy model.
MacGann, 52, acknowledges that he was a member of Uber's senior management during this period. He also admits his own culpability for the actions he describes. He expressed remorse in an exclusive interview with The Guardian.
"I share responsibility," he admitted. "I was the person lobbying governments, lobbying the media, encouraging people to rethink the regulations, believing that drivers were going to benefit and individuals were going to gain significant economic prospects."
"How can you have a clear conscience if you don't take a stand and acknowledge your role in the way people are currently being treated, when it became clear that our initial claims were untrue - that we had essentially deceived individuals?"
During his tenure at Uber, from 2014 to 2016, MacGann held a senior position that put him at the centre of decision-making processes at the company's upper echelons. This was at a time when Uber was in the process of aggressively expanding into markets that were in violation of taxi licensing regulations. MacGann oversaw Uber's efforts to persuade governments in more than 40 countries to overhaul taxi regulations. In doing so, he helped create a more favourable business environment.
He described the experience as both "mesmerising" and "profoundly unfair and contrary to democratic principles", reflecting on the ease with which Uber gained access to influential circles in countries such as the UK, France and Russia.
In his wide-ranging interview, even years after his departure from Uber, MacGann detailed the personal journey that ultimately led him to release the data.
He expressed remorse for having participated in a group that manipulated information to gain the trust of riders, consumers and political leaders. He acknowledged that he should have been more hands-on in his judgement and efforts to put a stop to these deceptive practices. MacGann now feels it's his responsibility to speak out and help government agencies and lawmakers correct significant injustices. He said: "I felt morally compelled to take this action.
A global investigation into the leaked Uber documents was led by The Guardian. Through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the data was distributed to various media outlets around the world.
After MacGann identified himself as a whistleblower, Uber responded: "We recognise that Mark has personal regrets about his years of unwavering loyalty to our previous leadership. However, his current position does not allow him to provide any credible insight into the current state of Uber".
In response to the wider investigation, Uber acknowledged its past shortcomings, but insisted that the company had been through significant changes since 2017 under the leadership of new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. A spokesperson said: "We have no intention of justifying past actions that are clearly at odds with our current values."
The Uber files include confidential internal data that MacGann was allowed to access while at Uber. The compilation includes company presentations, briefing materials, security assessments, and tens of thousands of correspondences over platforms such as WhatsApp, iMessage, and chat logs that involved the company's top executives at the time.
These include Travis Kalanick, Uber's assertive co-founder and former CEO; David Plouffe, a former Barack Obama campaign aide who became Uber's senior vice president; and Rachel Whetstone, a British PR expert who has held prominent positions at Google, Facebook and now Netflix.
Following MacGann's departure from Uber in 2016, Whetstone praised him as a "remarkable leader". Plouffe described him as a "skilled public policy professional" and a "tremendous advocate for Uber".
Once a prominent supporter of Uber in Europe, MacGann appears to be on the verge of a transformation into one of its most vocal critics.
He is an unconventional whistleblower because of his role as a senior executive and a well-connected political insider. Equally notable is his active involvement in some of the misconduct he now seeks to expose. And the considerable time span of more than five years after he left the company before he decided to come forward.
The evolution of his perspective on his observations at Uber was a gradual process, he explains. "I embarked on a journey to identify the most effective and impactful means of doing so once I recognised my responsibility to speak out. It hasn't been without challenges. I've had moments of hesitation. However, there's no expiration date on doing the right thing ethically." He said.
Recent information suggests that MacGann has recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Uber. This follows a legal dispute over his compensation. He admits to having personal grievances with the company, although he cannot discuss the legal matter. He claims Uber undervalued his importance as a government liaison and failed to care for him.
MacGann accuses Uber, under Kalanick's leadership, of taking an adversarial approach to its opponents in the taxi industry. He claims that this strategy made him personally vulnerable. He bore the full brunt of an intense backlash that swept through countries such as France, Belgium, Italy and Spain as Uber's public face in Europe.
He found himself under the protection of bodyguards in the face of life-threatening danger. MacGann's time at Uber, he reveals, took a toll on his mental health. It played a role in his subsequent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Brazenly breaking the law
MacGann was a natural choice to lead Uber's government relations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) in 2014, given his insight into the workings of Brussels. A native of Ireland, he is fluent in several languages. He has an extensive network built up over two decades in lobbying and public affairs.
He has previously worked for prominent public affairs firms such as Weber Shandwick and Brunswick. He also ran DigitalEurope, a trade association that lobbied on behalf of companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Sony. Most recently, he was a senior vice-president at the New York Stock Exchange. His annual salary was $750,000.
To join Uber, MacGann had to accept a significant reduction in salary. He settled for €160,000. The lure, however, was the potential for stock options that promised substantial wealth if Uber achieved its global ambitions, as was the case for other senior executives joining the company at the time.
Uber and its investors had their sights set on substantial profits, contingent on the tech company's success in achieving its goals: deregulation of markets, establishment of city monopolies, overhaul of transport systems and, ultimately, the replacement of human drivers with self-driving vehicles. MacGann acknowledges that in areas where controlled taxi markets required elusive licences to operate taxis, this plan required Uber to defy local regulations.
"In these locations, the company's strategy boiled down to breaking the law, demonstrating the excellence of Uber's service, and subsequently changing the legal landscape. My role was to work around city officials. I had to cultivate relationships with senior government officials and negotiate. It also involved managing the aftermath." MacGann admits.
MacGann's association with Uber began around the summer of 2014, when he was employed on a contract basis by a European lobbying consultancy that had been hired by Uber to oversee its interactions with governments outside of the US. In October 2014, Uber brought him on board. He was appointed head of public policy for the EMEA region.
On his first day on the job, MacGann became acquainted with Uber's lax approach to privacy while travelling in an Uber car from London City Airport. After an e-mail to a senior executive about traffic delays, he received a reply: "I'm watching you on Heaven. I've already seen the ETA!"
"Heaven", also referred to as "God View", was the internal term used by Uber employees at the time for a tool that allowed employees to covertly use the app's back-end technology to monitor the real-time movements of any user around the world.
It felt like children playing with powerful surveillance technology," recalls MacGann. Even then it dawned on me that this was a rogue company.
In its official statement, Uber acknowledged that tools like God View, which was discontinued in 2017, "should never have been used". A representative for Kalanick rejected the idea that he had ever "directed illegal or improper conduct".
There are instances of MacGann objecting to the company's operations and decisions in the Uber files. However, the majority of the documents show him expressing limited dissent to the company's aggressive strategies. In some cases, he appears to be directly involved in misconduct.
He describes himself as fully immersed in Uber's culture. A state he claims was cultivated by a company that discouraged opposition and criticism. His central involvement in many of the controversies exposed by the data leak, however, he doesn't deny.
"I was deeply invested in the vision we were championing and got caught up in the excitement," he admitted. "I was working non-stop. I was working 20-hour days, every day of the week, juggling flights, meetings and video conferences. I never took a moment to step back.
He interacted with prime ministers, presidents, transport and economy ministers, EU commissioners, mayors and city regulators during his whirlwind tenure.
According to MacGann, a significant proportion of senior politicians were inherently supportive of Uber, seeing the tech company as introducing an innovative platform that could facilitate flexible employment and contribute to economic revitalisation in the wake of the financial crisis.
The situation in France was more nuanced. Uber's unlicensed service led to protests by taxi drivers and caused a split in the cabinet of then-president François Hollande.
On one side was Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, who MacGann says once summoned him and threatened him with jail: "If you don't stop operating by the end of the week, I will hold you personally and criminally responsible".
On the other side of the spectrum was Emmanuel Macron, the economy minister. Macron is known for his pro-technology and pro-business stance. Macron has become something of a covert asset for Uber, the leaked data reveals.
The data includes text message conversations between MacGann and Macron. The latter is secretly working to help the US tech company. In one exchange, during a raid on Uber's offices, MacGann asks for Macron's help. In another, he complained about what appeared to amount to banning Uber from operating in Marseille.
Macron assured MacGann that he would personally look into the matter and said, "At this point, let's remain calm," indicating his intention to address the issue.
MacGann recalls Macron as "the lone individual who gave us real attention... He was like a breath of fresh air on a grand scale."
Macron chose not to respond to detailed questions about his relationship with Uber. A spokesperson noted that his ministerial responsibilities at the time naturally involved interactions with numerous companies in the service sector.
Following his departure from Uber, MacGann maintained his relationship with Macron, helping to raise funds for Macron's La République En Marche party in 2016. He clarifies that his political support for the French president was a personal decision, and had "absolutely no connection to Uber". Their exchange of text messages continued as recently as April this year.’
Speed dating for elites’
The French president is not the only political figure with whom MacGann is intimately acquainted. Two former EU commissioners, Neelie Kroes and Peter Mandelson, are on a first-name basis. After leaving Uber, MacGann maintained a business relationship with Lord Mandelson. Mandelson is a former Labour cabinet minister.
MacGann is also a recognisable presence among VIPs attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, an event he describes as "a fast elite rendezvous". He recalls how he convinced an initially reluctant Kalanick to take part in the event, held in the Swiss Alps, in 2016.
"Davos," he notes, "gives lobbyists an exceptional competitive advantage. It is a privilege that can only be secured with considerable resources. Politicians don't have an entourage of advisers and civil servants to hover around and record the details".
Uber executives met with prominent figures such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British Chancellor George Osborne. MacGann noted that arranging these meetings was "effortless" because "Uber was seen as a valuable asset". Such was the perception that when Kalanick met Joe Biden at a Swiss resort, it was at the request of the US vice-president.
The Uber files reveal that Kalanick was furious when Biden kept him waiting, prompting him to text other Uber executives: "I have informed my team to communicate that any delay on his part will result in less time for our meeting.
However, it's another message from Kalanick in the leaked data that has captured the world's attention, as he appears to advocate using Uber drivers to join a protest in France, even in the face of potential violence.
Informed by MacGann and Whetstone that urging Uber drivers to take part in protests during a period of violent taxi strikes in Paris could put them at risk, Kalanick replied: "I think it's a risk worth taking. Violence ensures success."
MacGann described Kalanick's directive to orchestrate an act of civil disobedience involving French Uber drivers, despite the dangers involved, as "reckless" and "self-centred". He remarked: "He wasn't the individual on the street who was being threatened, assaulted and attacked."
Kalanick's spokesperson claimed that he "never suggested that Uber exploit violence and disregard driver safety" and that any suggestion that he was involved in such actions was "completely false". Uber acknowledged past missteps but insisted that no one at the company, including Kalanick, advocated violence against Uber drivers.
MacGann claims that in some circles at Uber, drivers were seen as pawns to be used strategically to put pressure on governments. "Even if it meant Uber drivers going on strike, demonstrating in the streets or blocking cities like Barcelona, Berlin or Paris, that was seen as the way to go," he noted. "In a way, there was a belief that it would be advantageous to use Uber drivers in this way."
The leaked files also show MacGann's involvement in this approach. In one email, he praised staff in Amsterdam for leaking stories about assaults on drivers to the media, with the intention of "perpetuating the narrative of violence" and influencing the Dutch government.
In hindsight, MacGann reflected: "I am deeply disturbed and embarrassed that I have been complicit in trivialising such acts of violence.
A parting of ways
One of the most heated episodes in Europe took place at Brussels Midi train station, where Uber drivers lingered to serve passengers who would otherwise queue at an authorised taxi rank. MacGann's presence there became public knowledge on 27 April 2015.
"Arriving from London, a group of taxi drivers spotted me at the station," he emailed a colleague that day. "Seven of them followed me as I walked to my Uber, hurling insults and even spitting at me. ... One of them followed me for some time, apparently to confront my driver".
In response, the colleague wrote: "Thank God you're safe... Over the weekend, an argument between an Uber driver and a taxi driver escalated into a physical fight. Tensions are rising in Brussels".
In the weeks that followed, the threats escalated. Emails within the company showed concern after a taxi driver followed MacGann's limousine to his home in Brussels and posted his home address on a "Stop Uber" Facebook group in Belgium. The taxi driver took pictures of MacGann outside a hotel, resembling surveillance footage, while he was with friends, and then shared them online.
In August that year, a security report commissioned by Uber highlighted rumours that MacGann and another Uber executive were being targeted for "physical confrontation with a core group of taxi drivers".
In response, Uber assigned MacGann a dedicated team of personal bodyguards. According to one email, the security team spent a total of 619 hours protecting him in Belgium alone between September and November 2015, and Uber also increased security measures for his international travel.
During a protest in Brussels, around 100 taxi drivers gathered outside MacGann's office in the city, blocking the road. An Uber security report detailed how an initially calm environment turned into a "more sombre" atmosphere. Fireworks were set off and the situation escalated to the point where riot police had to intervene.
During the protest, taxi drivers put up "wanted" posters on their vehicles with pictures of MacGann and two other Uber executives. The accompanying text described them as "international criminals".
In October 2015, MacGann communicated with a colleague, saying, "I've had constant bodyguards for five months now and it's getting incredibly stressful." A week later, he informed Plouffe and Whetstone of his intention to resign. His official departure came four months later, on 12 February 2016.
The parting seemed amicable. Publicly, MacGann expressed no regrets and used his Facebook platform to heap praise on Kalanick. He remarked, "He's been the most challenging boss I've ever had, and I've grown as a leader because of it," and insisted there was "nothing" he would change about his tenure at Uber. He encouraged people to focus on the practical benefits of the platform, saying: "Forget the media sensation, forget the intrigue; think about how pressing a button and getting a ride improves your life.
In his farewell email to colleagues, MacGann described himself as a "firm believer in Uber's mission".
Uber publicly praised MacGann's contributions and offered to keep him on as an advisor. He took on the role of "senior board advisor" and retained access to his Uber-related emails, laptops and phones.
This role ended in August 2016, after which MacGann took a new position at a telecommunications company and launched his own entrepreneurial venture. A full year after his departure from Uber, MacGann recounted that his most "terrifying" experience was being perceived as a representative of the ride-hailing company.
A police report, Uber correspondence and media reports document the event outside Brussels Midi station. It happened between 11.45am and 12.15pm on 19 September 2017. MacGann had just arrived at the station.
As he made his way to the waiting Uber vehicle, he was approached by taxi drivers who demanded that he not get into the car. One even grabbed his arms to prevent him from putting his bags in. Concerned for his safety, MacGann instructed the Uber driver to lock the doors once he was inside.
Several other taxi drivers joined the commotion and surrounded the vehicle. MacGann immediately contacted the police. A safety assessment commissioned by Uber questioned whether the taxi drivers had identified him. But MacGann vividly remembers the drivers shouting, "MacGann, we're going to find you, we know where you live.
He describes their violent banging on the windows and the unsettling movement they made with the car. Although three taxi drivers were taken to the police station, no further legal action was taken.
MacGann reveals that he was gripped by a sense of fear not only for his own life but also for that of the Uber driver, who was "shaking and crying, genuinely afraid for his safety". MacGann's observation was that Uber viewed this driver as expendable - a mere resource, without the rights typically afforded to employees.
In the aftermath, MacGann received an anonymous threat on Twitter: "A time will come when the police won't be there and you'll be alone. We'll see if your money can protect you then".
MacGann blamed his former employer for the situation. He felt that Uber's relentless pursuit of success, regardless of the consequences, encouraged confrontation between the company and taxi drivers. He began to see this as a reflection of Uber's broader relationship with its drivers - putting them in harm's way to further its financial motives.
Around mid-2018, MacGann's mental health began to deteriorate, which he attributes in part to the loss of a close friend. A medical assessment in March 2019 revealed that his subsequent diagnosis of PTSD was "undoubtedly related to, and influenced by, the professional stress he had to endure" during his tenure at Uber.
MacGann re-evaluated his time at Uber following months of therapeutic treatment in 2018 and 2019, and a period of mandatory introspection. He notes: "I had stepped off the corporate treadmill for the first time in decades. This brought a new clarity to everything I'd experienced at Uber.
No longer caught up in the whirlwind of being a corporate executive, MacGann had the luxury of time to listen to the stories of the Uber drivers who chauffeured him. He attributes these conversations to a transformative shift in his understanding of what the company used to call "driver economics".
In response, an Uber spokesperson said that "driver earnings around the world are currently at or near historic highs" and stressed that Uber's interests are closely aligned with those of its drivers, ensuring a positive earning experience on the platform. She also noted that if drivers are unhappy with the platform, they have the option to seek earnings elsewhere.
In the statement released following MacGann's revelation as a whistleblower, Uber claimed that his lawsuit against the company "was, among other things, an attempt to secure a bonus he believed was owed to him for his contributions at Uber". The case was recently settled for €550,000. It's worth noting, the statement added, that Mark's decision to "blow the whistle" came after he received the settlement.
MacGann first contacted the Guardian five months before settling his legal dispute with Uber, and he placed no restrictions on when journalists could use the leaked data. He disputes Uber's claim that he has received €550,000 and says he is still awaiting full payment from the settlement. His lawyer said: "Although Uber has paid a significant portion of the settlement, a significant portion remains outstanding as tax issues are resolved.
By February 2020, MacGann had become increasingly angry at what he perceived as the mistreatment of Uber drivers and decided to take action. At the time, Uber was in the process of appealing a decision by Transport for London (TfL) to deny the company a licence in the capital on the grounds that it did not meet 'fit and proper' criteria.
In an email to the mayor's office, MacGann identified himself as a former Uber executive with insights to share "in a private and non-sensational way" based on his intimate familiarity with the company. Expressing frustration at not receiving a response to his formal attempt to raise concerns about Uber, MacGann conveyed his desire to contribute information.
In February 2021, MacGann took a more proactive approach. After learning about a French lawyer who was pursuing a class action lawsuit against Uber on behalf of drivers, MacGann contacted the lawyer and offered to help strengthen their case. The lawyer visited MacGann at his home, where he was allowed to photograph a limited selection of Uber-related documents stored on MacGann's old computer.
Although his interaction with the French lawyer was short-lived, it marked a turning point. MacGann realised the depth of the confidential information he had amassed about Uber.
In January 2022, Uber's former chief lobbyist travelled to Geneva and met with journalists from The Guardian. He revealed two suitcases containing laptops, hard drives, iPhones and bundles of documents. He warned that it would take at least several days to convey the full extent of his knowledge. "I've seen some really questionable practices," he remarked, invoking a Silicon Valley phrase.