September 22, 2022

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Irish lobbyist Mark MacGann has emerged as the whistleblower behind the leaking of internal files at US cab-hailing firm Uber, which reveal details of high-level lobbying of Irish and other EU governments.

MacGann, a 52-year-old career lobbyist who was born in Longford and raised in Roscommon, worked for the California-based technology company between 2014 and 2016, serving as its chief lobbyist for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The former Uber executive left Ireland in the late 1980s and has worked as a lobbyist for technology, telecoms, stock market companies and PR firms for the past three decades. He oversaw Uber’s government relations and lobbying in more than 40 countries, managing the firm’s global expansion as it moved its business into Europe and sought to force local laws to be rewritten and to break down entry barriers to challenge local taxi industries.

Known as The Uber Files, the 124,000 records were leaked by MacGann to The Guardian, the UK newspaper, and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 40 media partners, including The Irish Times, the BBC and the Washington Post.

The leaked records show that MacGann was heavily involved in Uber’s efforts to put pressure on Irish government ministers, senior officials and State agencies between 2014 and 2016 as it tried but ultimately failed to push the National Transport Authority, the regulator for the taxi industry, to loosen regulations to permit the company’s car-sharing business model.

As the public face of Uber in Europe, MacGann, who was based in Brussels when he worked for Uber, became a target of anti-Uber campaigns and at times violent protests by the established taxi industry. The threats were so significant that Uber assigned him a team of bodyguards in 2015 to accompany him around Belgium and security on foreign trips.

He says he has chosen to become a whistleblower and disclose Uber’s practices because he claims Uber’s senior executives knowingly flouted laws in dozens of countries and “sold people a lie” about the economic benefits to drivers of the company’s gig economy model.

MacGann has acknowledged that he was part of Uber’s senior management team at the time of the activities and shared some responsibility for the practices. His decision to go public with details of the practices he was involved in within Uber is partly driven by remorse.

The Irishman has revealed the motivations behind his decision to turn whistleblower in an interview with The Guardian newspaper. MacGann said he held Uber responsible for the threats he faced from taxi protesters across Europe because “the company didn’t change the way it behaved”.

“Its response to violence against one of its senior executives was to give the guy bodyguards. There was no change in behaviour. No change in tactics. No change in tone. It was, keep the fight, keep the fire burning,” he told The Guardian.

He condemned the strategy pursued by Uber’s former chief executive Travis Kalanick who responded to strikes by taxi drivers by ordering counter-protests in European cities. In internal emails, he dismissed concerns from Uber executives that this could result in attacks on Uber drivers, saying: “I think it’s worth it. Violence guarantee[s] success.”

MacGann said that he thought Kalanick meant that “the only way to get governments to change the rules and legalise Uber and allow Uber to grow, as Uber wishes, would be to keep the right, to keep the controversy burning.”

The Irishman said he ultimately resigned because he could have no effect on changing the culture of the company and was worried about his safety and that of his family and friends.

“This was not a culture where you could actually stand up and question the company’s decisions or the company’s strategy, or the company’s practices,” he said. “So ultimately I realised that I was having no impact, that I was wasting my time with the company and that feeling.”

MacGann said he could not have a clear conscience if he did not “stand up and own” his role at Uber in telling governments and officials that they should change the rules because drivers and others were going to benefit when, in fact, Uber had “actually sold people a lie”.

“It’s about making amends. It’s about doing the right thing,” he said.

“Look I own what I did, but if it turns out that what I was trying to persuade governments, ministers, prime ministers, presidents and drivers turned out to be horribly, horribly wrong and untrue, then it’s incumbent upon me to go back and say: ‘I think we made a mistake’.

“And I think, to the extent that people want me to help, I want to play a role in trying to correct that mistake.”

MacGann experienced first-hand the angry reaction that Uber’s entry into long-established taxi markets could bring. In Rome, after meeting an adviser to the Italian prime minister, he said he and a colleague were blocked in their limousine and treated like “the enemy”.

“This is something I’d never encountered. And the anger and hatred that I witnessed first-hand, I don’t hold it against those people who were doing it,” he said. “Here’s a company that was willing to destroy their livelihoods, so they needed somebody to be angry at. They needed someone to shout at it. They needed someone to shout at. They needed someone to intimidate, somebody to threaten. I became that person.”

During the unrest over Uber’s entry into the Belgian market, MacGann found himself cornered by angry taxi drivers while in an Uber car in 2017 at a Brussels train station.

For MacGann, the frenetic period of lobbying for Uber, from 2015 to 2017, marked a rare return to Ireland in what was a high-profile international career for the Irishman.

MacGann was born on April 1st, 1970 in Longford but grew up on the other side of the river Shannon in Ballyleague, Co Roscommon. He was one of five sons born to Harry and Patricia McGann (the rest of his family spells their surname “McGann”). He told an Irish business journalist in 2016 that he left Ireland “with the last exodus of geese in 1987,” departing the country in the last big wave of emigration before the boom years of the Celtic Tiger.

He studied economics and politics at Kingston University in London and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Grenoble, France from 1987 to 1993.

He began his career as an adviser to the president of the Rhone-Alpes region in southeast France where he was responsible for attracting European structuring funding and private investment to the region. He later worked as a consultant for advertising agency Euro RSCG in Paris focusing on communications and media aspects of privatisation in France.

In the late 1990s, he worked for French telecoms company Alcatel where he was director of European affairs during the deregulation of telecoms in Europe.

He worked for lobbying and public relations firms Brunswick, out of the firm’s offices in London, Paris and New York, and later for Weber Shandwick in the 2000s.

During that decade, he was also director general of Digital Europe, a trade association that lobbied for companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Sony.

In 2010, he joined NYSE Euronext, the world’s largest stock exchange operator that runs the New York Stock Exchange, as its chief European lobbyist, leading its government affairs and public advocacy team out of Brussels. He spent four years with the company.

He joined Uber in 2014, taking a significant pay cut to €160,000 a year but was lured to the company with the promise of stock options that were potentially worth millions of euro.

He officially left his staff role at Uber on February 12th, 2016, but remained with the company as senior adviser to its board until August 2016 and was paid €40,000 a month.

MacGann reached an out-of-court settlement with Uber in recent months relating to a legal dispute over pay, the terms of which prevent him speaking about it publicly.

Since leaving Uber, he has set up a consultancy business, Moonshot Strategies, near his home in Longford, with older brother, Tom, an engineer, serving as a fellow director.

MacGann’s high-profile role at Uber brought into close contact with high-ranking political figures. He grew to know Emmanuel Macron, a close ally of Uber, during his time as France’s economy minister before he became French president in 2017. He helped Macron with his campaign and made contributions of €15,000 to his presidential campaign in 2016 and 2017.

He was a regular at the World Economic Forum in Davos, mixing with prominent figures from the corporate, political and celebrity worlds, often acting as a minder for Kalanick.

MacGann told the Guardian that it was “unprecedented” during his career to have “such easy access” to heads and members of governments and heads of state.

“It was intoxicating,” he said. At the time, Uber was “the hottest ticket in town” in the tech world and in the wider business world, he said. “Both on the investor side and also on the political side, people were almost falling over themselves in order to meet with Uber and to hear what we had to offer.”

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