Uber admits breaking the law when it launched in Australia

Rideshare giant Uber has admitted illegally setting up operations in Australia, as it faces a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over claims it used secret spyware to lure drivers to try to “crush” its local rival.

Australian taxi-booking app GoCatch sued the American tech giant over allegations it engaged in corporate espionage and used secret spyware to lure drivers.

Australian taxi-booking app GoCatch sued the American tech company over allegations it engaged in corporate espionage and used secret spyware to lure drivers in a bid to “crush” its Sydney-based rival.

GoCatch, which was once backed by billionaire James Packer and investment banker Alex Turnbull, also alleged Uber was operating illegally when it launched its UberX ridesharing service in several Australian states in 2014.

A Victorian Supreme Court trial was on Tuesday told Uber had for the first time admitted it was breaking the law when it began operations in Australia.

“Uber has been consistently reluctant, in fact, refused to acknowledge this reality that it was illegal,” GoCatch lawyer Michael Hodge KC said in his opening remarks.

“They have done so until this statement of agreed facts.”

Ridesharing was legalised in NSW in December 2015, followed by other states, and Mr Hodge said the court needed to consider the significance of Uber’s 20-month headstart when assessing damages.

Uber is also accused of stealing GoCatch taxi drivers — who were accredited and booked via a mobile app — by employing “Surfcam” spyware which enabled the company to obtain details, including names and phone numbers.

Internal emails reveal then Uber Australia boss David Rohrsheim discussed wanting to “destroy” and “crush” GoCatch before they became “too legit”.  

“I got my hands on a list of all GoCatch driver phone numbers. We are aggressively cold calling (without disclosing how we got their number) and won 56 of their drivers,” he said in an email from 2014.

“The inescapable conclusion is that GoCatch in particular is reaching critical mass and we now have a low-cost competitor to deal with,” he said in a different email.

Another employee stated: “Go Catch is *the* reason we’re launching taxi in Sydney. F–k those guys.”

Uber is also accused of misleading regulators, going as far as using an electronic “kill switch” to hide records while a search warrant was being carried out — a claim the company denies. 

GoCatch co-founder Andrew Campbell says it has been a ‘long process’ but he is glad the case has been brought to trial.

GoCatch co-founder Andrew Campbell said it had been a “long process” but he was glad the case had been brought to trial.

“Uber has never accepted responsibility for its conduct towards GoCatch. Uber’s first priority was to win at any cost using any method to destroy us as a competitive threat,” he said in a statement.

“We are fortunate to be in a position to go to Court as we believe that is the only pathway for Uber to be held accountable.”

In a statement, Uber, whose opening remarks are expected later in the trial, rejected any suggestion that it should be liable for the failure of other businesses to adapt to an “emerging competitive landscape”.

 “Uber is a fundamentally different business today than we were a decade ago. Since then, we have made significant changes to our leadership and how we conduct business, taking seriously our responsibility to be a collaborative, contributing industry leader,” it said.

Last month Uber, which is headquartered in San Francisco, settled a $272m class action with 8000 Australian taxi operators amid claims they had lost income after the company began illegally operating in Australia.

The civil trial, which is expected to run for 10 weeks before Justice Lisa Nichols, continues. 


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