By Cue Sibiya
Uber suffered a new setback in Europe this week, when an EU court adviser said that France was entitled to charge local managers of the US ride-hailing app firm with running an illegal taxi service.
Uber played down the non-binding opinion from an advocate general at the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), saying it applied only to a service using unlicensed drivers known as UberPOP, which it had already discontinued in France.
Judges would make a final ruling later this year. However, they generally followed the advice of their advocates general and the comments came two months after another opinion, which rejected Uber’s argument that it was only a digital platform and so subject to less regulation than a transport firm.
The European court battles were being fought as Uber struggled with last month’s departure of its co-founder and chief executive Travis Kalanick following a string of scandals that battered one of the global stars of the US tech industry.
The latest case before the ECJ was referred to it by a French court in Lille, and concerned a 2014 French law on taxis and chauffeured services which made it a criminal offence to organise illegal taxi services and set restrictions on the use of software to find customers in the street.
Uber had argued that it was not a taxi company and that the criminal fines imposed on two of its French managers were not valid because the French taxi law infringed EU rules under which limitations on digital services in the bloc require prior approval from Brussels.
Advocate General Maciej Szpunar, who also provided the opinion in the Spanish case in May, disagreed and upheld France’s right to prohibit and punish illegal transport activities like UberPOP without seeking EU approval of its law.
“Member states may prohibit and punish, as a matter of criminal law, the illegal exercise of transport activities in the context of the UberPOP service, without notifying the Commission of the draft law in advance,” he said in statement.
Uber said it now only operates in France with licenced cab drivers, as it does in many of its main European markets.
Uber was fined €800,000 (R12.02-million) last year and two of its executives were also fined for running an illegal taxi service with UberPOP. The case was being appealed and an outcome was expected at the end of the year.
Notably, Szpunar also said that member states remained free to punish illegal transport activities provided by intermediaries such as Uber without asking for Brussels’ green light regardless of whether Uber was considered a transport or an information society service.