Uber Files: Did you buy science in the sense of an American corporation?


Status: 11/07/2022 06:00

Documents leaked from Uber Files suggest that the American company wanted to buy help from German scientists. The renowned economist is in particular in the spotlight.

Author: Petra Blum, Andreas Braun, WDR, Catharina Felke, Benedikt Strunz, NDR

At what point are scientists too caught up in their personal interests that conflict with their professional role as neutral and independent researchers? Various employees of the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf are currently grappling with this question. The reason for this is a data leak from over 124,000 confidential documents that show how the transportation service provider Uber internationally tried to influence public opinion and legislation to its advantage.

Uber files

Uber’s files contain over 124,000 confidential documents that an anonymous source has leaked to the Guardian. In particular, they document the lobbying practices of the American company and its internal efforts in 2013-2017, as Uber aggressively expanded around the world. Over the past few months, an international team of over 180 journalists, coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the Guardian, assessed Uber files. “Le Monde”, “Washington Post”, “Indian Express”, “El Pais” and many others were involved in the research. In Germany, reporters work with NDR, WDR and “Süddeutsche Zeitung” in Uber Files.

Haucap like a bull’s eye for Uber

The name of Justus Haucap, one of the most famous economists in Germany and a figurehead at the University of Düsseldorf where he is an economics professor, also appears in the Uber Files, contract collection, confidential e-mail, chat messages, briefings and presentations.

Haucap is considered a luminary in its field. For several years he was chairman of the German monopoly committee and is a welcome interlocutor and speaker. Above all, Haucap, which also frequently publishes for the employer-funded lobbying organization Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft (INSM), is seen as an advocate of radical competition policy.

To Uber, the liberal economist must have seemed like a bull’s eye. Especially that Haucap previously, independently of Uber, spoke positively about the liberalization of the taxi market. In any case, Uber-paid lobbyists around current FDP MP Otto Fricke started advertising Haucap in 2014. This can be seen in Uber’s files.

Study commissioned for Uber

After a meeting in early October 2014, which Uber employees said took place in a “pleasant and productive atmosphere,” Haucap sent an offer to Uber, commissioned by a study entitled “Consumer benefits from liberalizing the taxi market in Germany.” , cost item: € 44,000. The study was to be prepared by DICE Consult GmbH and DIW Econ GmbH – a subsidiary of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin).

DICE Consult GmbH works closely with the institute at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. Haucap is a partner of DICE Consult GmbH. The offer includes not only an outline, but also in parts surprisingly detailed information about the study being created.

For example, chapter five of the study noted that not only the social benefits of liberalizing the taxi market are estimated, but also other benefits such as “increased safety, better” matching “of different consumer wishes, comfort, etc.” and further: ” The consequences of the analysis – regulatory reform – are then discussed in section 6. ”

When questioned, employees of DICE Consult GmbH and DIW Econ GmbH stated that the work was carried out independently and “ultimately without results”. “We have never neglected scientific standards in connection with this work.”

4,000 euros for a newspaper article

However, Haucap’s offer to Uber has gone even further. In the aforementioned e-mail NDR, WDR and the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” (SZ), the economist also proposes to the US group to publish a newspaper article that addresses the “positive consumer effects” of the liberalized taxi market. Here, the costs would be around 4,000 euros.

An Uber employee noted that Haucap stated that “the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung [Haucap] will be there in November ”. The questioned employee of DICE Consult GmbH stated that it is not “the practice of prof. Haucapa in creating custom-made articles ”.

In any case, at the beginning of December 2014, an article by Haucap appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). It was an opinion in which the economist discussed the possible liberalization of the taxi market. Under the heading “Free the Taxi Prices,” Haucap not only praised the economic benefits of the sharing economy. “In urban passenger transport … the sharing economy also protects the environment,” he says, for example. Uber customers can also rate a driver, which helps “improve overall service quality.”

Haucap had Uber approved FAZ articles

According to the letter, DICE Consult GmbH charged the shipping provider Uber € 4,000 for the creation of a “newsletter article” along with half of the agreed tuition fee. The FAZ says there are no side agreements between Haucap and Uber. The process is remarkable not only because Haucap is a member of the FAZIT Foundation Board of Trustees, which is also tasked with protecting the editorial independence of FAZ.

When questioned, a Haucap employee explained that the process “can no longer be understood today”. However, it can be ruled out that “the editorial and substantive sovereignty in terms of the contribution rests with Uber.” However, an email sent to Uber employees in early November 2014 makes just that impression. He says: “This month, Haucap will write an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and send it to us for approval in advance.”

When asked again, a colleague of the professor explained that Haucap would in principle not accept any requests for change, “not even to Uber … that did not match the opinion expressed in the article.”

Uber was allowed to review the study before it was published

A few months later, DICE Consult GmbH and DIW Econ GmbH published an Uber-friendly study labeled Uber-funded. The draft of the relevant employment contract for the preparation of the study contains – in addition to a detailed description of the content of the chapter – a clause that Uber reserves the right to change the contribution and the press article before publication.

In an email, an Uber employee had previously informed a high-level manager that it had already been discussed with scientists that Uber would review and revise the study prior to publication, and that the researchers accepted. As internal emails show, Uber did have many requests for changes to the original work. Among other things, the research should not be as focused on Uber as otherwise there would be a risk that the work would quickly be exposed as a “marketing tool”.

A comparison of the work published in 2015 with the wording of the requests for change shows that they have been largely complied with. An employee of DICE Consult GmbH explained that the published work does not contain any changes requested by Uber “incompatible with our calculation results”. Haucap also presented the results of his research to Bundestag members and at the DIW Berlin event.

“An excellent example of lobbying”

A spokesman for Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf shared NDR, WDR and “SZ” that the university “was not involved in any way”. In fact, the study was carried out by employees of DICE Consult GmbH, which has a name similar to the Düsseldorf Institute of Competition Economics (DICE) at the university and with which there are also personal ties.

In fact, DICE Consult GmbH is “independently and privately organized”. In this respect, the case concerns “the entrepreneurial activity of one of our scientists as a private person who enjoys the same freedom in this respect as any other private person”.

Timo Lange of the non-governmental organization Lobby Control considers this argument incorrect, the distinction between private individuals and scientists is always “very artificial separation and window decoration”. For Lange, this process is “a perfect example of how lobbying works today, as it tries to back up some arguments with scientific research.” The German media called on Lange to more critically question the origin of the so-called opinions.

Uber explained to the process that the work was not a scientific paper but an advisory report that was also marked as such. In addition, it’s generally true that Uber is “very committed to rules and regulations today” and has undergone a cultural shift.

Leave a Comment