Europe Isn’t Buying Uber’s ‘We’re Just an App’ Argument

Uber may soon have to play by the rules of a transport provider.
May 11, 2017, 12:20pm
Image: joiseyshowaa

Is Uber a tech startup or a transportation company? A legal opinion from the top European court has decided it's the latter.

The question was referred to the EU Court of Justice—Europe's highest court—following an anti-competition suit by Spanish taxi firms against the UberPop service, which let non-professional drivers offer paid-for rides using their own cars without any licensing.

Advocate General Maciej Szpunar noted in his opinion that Uber isn't merely an "information society service" but a "comprehensive system for on-demand urban transport". Nor is it a ride-sharing app, but a "service in the field of transport". The opinion isn't binding, and a final ruling will arrive later this year.

If the ruling does follow Szpunar's opinion, Uber's presence in the EU isn't under threat, but Uber will have shift the way it operates in many mainland European cities.

The company is already regulated as a transport provider in many countries, with unlicensed UberPop dropped in favour of professional drivers with UberX in Madrid, Berlin and Paris. In London, for example, Uber drivers are already required to have a private hire licence, the same one that has long let "minicabs" offer a cheaper alternative to the city's famous but expensive black cabs.

According to Uber's own documents, that requires a £58 criminal background check, medical check-up that costs up to £120, and £250 to apply for a private hire license, as well as passing the Transport for London topographical exam, an English-language test of map-reading skills and basic London geography. To encourage drivers to sign up despite such hurdles, Uber offers a £300 "joining reward" after their first 20 trips, so the licensing burden hasn't held Uber back in Britain's capital.

Read more: This Is Uber's Terrible Response When Someone Steals Your Ride

"Being considered a transportation company would not change the way we are regulated in most EU countries as that is already the situation today," an Uber spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "It will, however, undermine the much needed reform of outdated laws which prevent millions of Europeans from accessing a reliable ride at the tap of a button."

Of course, this isn't the only court challenge facing the controversial company in the EU, and the ruling could add weight to demands that Uber treat workers like full-time employees.

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