After a particularly heated period for upstart transportation business Uber in Europe, Uber is going on the regulatory offensive. Today the company’s head of public policy in EMEA, Mark MacGann, announced that an ongoing case against it in Spain has been referred to the European Courts of Justice — a move that Uber is celebrating on two counts.
First, it will take the case out of local hands and potentially give the company a result that is more in keeping with the EU’s bigger position on tech development and its bigger ambitions for a more digital society.
Second, it will mean that an EU decision will supersede any attempts by more local regulators to ban Uber and related companies. Indeed, the European Commission is already considering proposals for how to regulate ride sharing services like Uber on a European rather than local level.
“We welcome the decision to investigate……The decisions in the EU rarely have the effect of closing markets,” MacGann said in a press conference today.
This is not the only European-led advance Uber has seen of late. Last week, the FT reported that Germany is facing a European Commission probe over its Uber bans, and an EC investigation against France’s Thévenoud Law is already underway. The Thévenoud Law is sometimes called the “anti-Uber” law and requires people carrying passengers in their cars to have a special license and insurance to do so.
Later, MacGann noted his belief that the European Union generally will have a more sympathetic position on Uber.
“We operate under a single market for 500 million consumers,” he said. “If courts take the decision that [Uber acts] contrary to European law we will decide what to do next. But this is a single market. And Europe has invested massively in mobile [and the digital economy] and we believe the current regulation is not fit for purpose.”
But while local municipalities have been fast to ban services, an EU decision won’t be so quick: MacGann says that the company expects a decision only in the autumn of 2016.
Globally, Uber operates a variety of services UberPop/UberX for lower-cost rides, UberPool for ridesharing with others, and several premium services with larger and fancier cars. The lower tiers of service are what’s causing many problems for the company, since they are cheap and often rub against a lot of local regulations requiring drivers to hold special licenses and other requirements that these services often skirt around.
There are four areas that MacGann outlined that the EU will be assessing in this case:
- Is Uber is a mere transport activity or an information society service?
- If it is even partly an IS service, should Uber benefit for freedom of information on providing services, article 57
- Is Spanish competition law as applied to IS services valid under European law? Can the licensing regime be restrictive?
- Are the restrictions that Spain is imposing on Uber, including court orders to prohibit service, lawful?
He also added that if the courts decide Uber is “a mere transportation service” bodies are still obliged to let Uber establish itself as a local business and then there is an obligation to let it practice as a business. Uber says its rights are not being respected in that regard currently.
The case at the heart of today’s news stems from a lawsuit filed against Uber by the Barcelona taxi trade union at the end of last year, which led to Uber announcing it would suspend all operations in the country altogether. The judge in the Barcelona case has now decided that he cannot rule on that case and has confirmed that he referred it to the European courts instead.
MacGann also said that this should put other cases in other countries on hold. “This legal proceeding cannot be separated from other cases,” MacGann says. Uber has been making a more proactive move to fight for its position rather than simply defend itself against incumbents’ accusations, and it has filed local complaints across Europe including in France, Spain and Germany. “And we are currently assessing the bans in Milan,” he noted.
And this is not just restricted to markets where services are currently being interrupted. He noted that in Hungary, there has been a new decree published banning services, such as Uber from next year onwards. “We are in discussions with our European lawyers to see whether that action is lawful,” he said.
Update with correction from Uber on the assessment of the ban happening in Milan, not Madrid