Uber Facing Tougher Action In Brussels

Yet more trouble brewing for Uber in Europe. Brussels Minister of Mobility, Pascal Smet, is reportedly preparing to file a criminal complaint against the company, according to regional press reports, after failing to gain operational concessions through discussions.

Back in April, Uber’s ride-sharing service was banned in Brussels after taxi companies took the company to court arguing it failed to comply with local taxi regulations. But Uber has continued to operate (despite the risk of €10,000 fines per car) — hence the stepping up of city action now to determine which laws, if any, Uber is violating.

Belgian press is reporting that Smet intends to send a letter of complaint to the Federal Police’s Computer Crime Unit asking them to block Uber’s website in Belgium. The Minister is also planning to write to Google and Apple to ask them to remove Uber’s app from their stores — albeit Google is a substantial investor in Uber, via its Google Ventures arm, so it seems unlikely Mountain View will be persuaded to pull the Uber app from the Play Store.

Quick recap: the on-demand ride-hailing service has always been controversial but clamp downs on Uber’s practices have ratcheted up a gear of late, especially in the wake of a passenger rape apparently perpetrated by an Uber driver in New Delhi earlier this month. That incident led to Uber suspending its own operations in the city to undertake an internal review.

Meanwhile in the U.S. the City of Portland is suing the company on local transport regulations grounds, immediately after launch. And in Europe Uber is facing legal clampdowns on multiple fronts: it’s been ordered to shut down operations in Madrid by a Spanish judge; its UberPop ride-sharing service has been banned by a court in the Netherlands; it has also been slapped with injunctions in Germany; and drivers of its cars are being fined and having their vehicles impounded in Italy. Meanwhile French judges are ruling today on whether to ban UberPop.

Regulatory and legal opposition to its operations is fast becoming the rule rather than the exception for Uber. The company typically thumbs its nose at attempts to drive it off the road, continuing to run a service in some form. However it remains to be seen whether tougher crackdowns across Europe will start to bite.

In Brussels the new tougher rhetorical from Smet against Uber suggests an out and out ban might be on the way. And the risk of more fines and car confiscations for drivers may make it harder for the company to run an effective service there.

De Morgen reports the city intends to use mystery shoppers for checks on whether Uber drivers’ cars comply with local transport regulations — to amp up the fear of fines, perhaps convincing more drivers in Brussels to stay away.

The minister targeting the apps and Uber website itself is more interesting: an attempt by Smet to throttle passenger demand for the service. That’s potentially seriously damaging to Uber. However, it remains to be seen whether Brussels succeeds in taking Uber offline.

Smet told De Morgen that “new initiatives like Uber are welcome in the city” provided they play by the rules. “We want the prosecutor to consider whether the company violates laws accurately, what they are, and who should take criminal responsibility,” he is quoted as saying.

We’ve asked Uber for comment on the impending criminal complaint in Brussels and will update this post with any response.

Uber’s Brussels blog yesterday was slick marketing gloss business as usual — trumpeting a PR move to deliver Christmas trees to Uber users in the city this Saturday. “All you need to do is request the UberTree option via your app and let the magic happen!” it chirps.