Taxi-hiring startup Uber’s UK arm has denied claims made on Tuesday that it poaches drivers from rival services with the heavily criticised method allegedly used by its US arm.
Codenamed “Operation Slog”, the previously secret programme is said to involve the use of disposable phone numbers and credit cards to recruit drivers away from Lyft, a key US competitor in the taxi services business.
In a post on its corporate blog, apparently published to pre-empt an expose by tech news site The Verge, the company says that Operation Slog – which it says stands for “Supplying Long-term Operations Growth” – involves a number of measures, including driver incentive programmes, vehicle financing, and “brand ambassadors” who recruit both drivers and riders.
It also denies a common criticism of the firm, saying that “we never use marketing tactics that prevent a driver from making their living – and that includes never intentionally cancelling rides”.
But the picture painted by the Verge’s Casey Newton is darker. Citing internal documents obtained from the company, he describes a wide-ranging programme active in at least 10 US cities where Uber operates, aimed at disrupting the practices of Lyft.
The leaked documents are said to show that independent contractors, known internally as Sloggers, are armed by Uber with disposable phone numbers and credit cards and told to hire Lyft rides. While in the car, they then attempt to encourage the driver to sign up with Uber, or even switch over entirely.
Despite Uber’s claims that it doesn’t “intentionally” cancel rides in the course of their efforts, Lyft claims to have identified more than 5,560 individual rides ordered and cancelled by Uber employees in that past 10 months by looking at the ride history of Uber employees and contractors that they have caught on the service. Lyft singles out one specific user as creating 14 different accounts and cancelling a total of 680 rides.
Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive and co-founder, hotly denied the existence of any program to call and cancel Lyft rides, or of executive approval to do so, or of it being carried out by a “rogue” employee. “ABSOLUTELY NOT … NEVER,” he tweeted in response to the question.
Uber has already been forced to apologise for spamming another car service, Gett, with fake rides, after documents revealed that its New York office was deliberately ordering and cancelling black cars. “Members of our New York team made requests to generate leads of independent contractors but then immediately cancelled seconds later,” it said. “The sales tactics were too aggressive and we apologise for our outreach approach to these drivers.”
The Verge alleged that Uber’s advice to its Slog treat team recommends that they “wait a period of time before you request so you do not have to cancel on the same driver if you get them again”, but does not call for ordering fake rides in the way the New York team was discovered doing.
Following the publication of the Verge story, Uber’s executive team took to social media to try to defend their practices. Kalanick argued that Operation Slog was no different from recruiting an engineer by calling their office phone, and asked whether it would be as controversial “if we got in taxis and recruited taxi drivers and paid for the ride?”
But one interlocutor, Basecamp’s chief technology officer David Heinemeier Hansson, argued that whether or not it was ethical, it looked “sleazy” for the company to use these tactics. “I wanted to be @uber’s biggest fan, but you’re making it impossible to even like the company with these tactics,” he told Kalanick. “It’s just dirty.”
“Who boasts ‘bottom line is that partnering with Uber is a bet you’ll always win’ in an explanation about how they’re not sleazy?” he added.
An Uber spokesperson told the Guardian that the tactics outlined in the company’s Operation Slog blogpost were not put into practice in the UK.
“In the UK Uber does not follow this driver acquisition strategy,” they said in a statement. “However, we have recently launched UberTaxi, as such our staff may well discuss the benefits of working with us to anyone who will listen! Uber does not request and cancel cars simply as part of driver acquisition in any territory.”
The Uber UK spokesperson also reiterated that the company doesn’t cancel bookings on rival services “to simply prevent competition”, adding “in fact Uber believes competition is a good thing, as it forces better service levels, which in turn is better for customers.”
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