Uber tells Europe’s top court that taxi app is a “digital economy” champ

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Uber’s “Greyball” tool helped company evade authorities in Portland, Paris

A legal decision which has potential ramifications for Uber, tech firms, the so-called “digital economy,” and many thousands of taxi drivers is expected no sooner than March, Europe’s top court said on Tuesday.

The point of law ruling, which will be made by a 15-strong panel of senior judges at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), could settle a debate that’s been rumbling away for more than half a decade: is Uber a transport firm, or—as the company and its lawyers claim—an “information society service?”

The case was brought against the California-based firm by a coalition of regulators and taxi firms. Depending on the outcome, it could set a precedent for other tech companies operating under the banner of a “digital platform,” including household names like Airbnb and Deliveroo. Representations were made on behalf of the European Commission and several EU countries, and the decision will affect all 28 member states.

At its core, the court is expected to answer a simple question: is Uber a tech firm which links sole-trading third-party drivers with passengers via its app, or is it simply an advanced taxi dispatch system employing lots of drivers on the cheap?

“Uber’s services can’t be reduced to merely a transport service,” Uber lawyer Cani Fernández told the court, according to the New York Times, which was at the hearing. She added: “The reduction of unnecessary barriers to information society services is critical in the development of the digital single market.”

Her counterpart, Montse Balagué, replied: “we must not be misled by labels. If there’s a transport service provided, then a company can’t hide behind a thin veil, calling itself a different service.”

Uber has had an adversarial relationship with EU regulators since its first pulled up at Europe’s kerb in 2011. The particular case being heard in the CJEU came from the Spanish courts, having been originally filed by Barcelona-based independent cab drivers’ lobby group Elite Taxi. And it will be a Spanish court—and not the CJEU—that ultimately rules on the Uber case.

“Uber is a company that is building a new model for transportation service at no cost, using third parties. It’s unfair competition,” Ivan Sesma, a member of the association’s management board, told the Wall Street Journal.

Beyond Spain, however, Uber has repeatedly beeped its horn with local and national governments across Europe, as critics have claimed that its aggressive expansion butts against local transportation, competition, and employee rights laws.

Its activities have either been banned or subjected to fines in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands—where its European headquarters has been raided more than once. French authorities, meanwhile, threatened to jail two directors, accusing them of  “deceptive commercial practices,” permitting “illegal taxi services,” and “illicit storage of personal data.”

Nevertheless, the company, which has a value estimated by some as high as $68 billion (£54.4 billion) now operates in 21 of the bloc’s 28 countries—including many of its erstwhile foes.

A court in Britain recently made the country’s first moves towards a legal answer to the question currently being weighed at the CJEU, with the Central London Employment Tribunal deciding in October that Uber is a taxi firm.

At the time, the tribunal said: “The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is to our minds faintly ridiculous. Drivers do not and cannot negotiate with passengers… They are offered and accept trips strictly on Uber’s terms.”

While GMB—the union that took the case to court on behalf of a handful of London-based Uber drivers—described it as a landmark decision, in truth little is likely to happen until the company’s appeals make their way through several tiers of higher courts—perhaps also ending up in the CJEU.

Ars has asked Uber for comment.

Listing image by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

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