National Competition Authorities take position on regulatory measures for online transport platforms

By Gabriele Accardo

In May 2015, the European Commission committed to assess the role of online transportation platforms, such as Uber, as it launched a public consultation to better understand the social and economic role of platforms, market trends, the dynamics of platform development and the various business models underpinning the platforms. According to the Commission, knowledge gained through this exercise will also contribute to various legislative initiatives—including online platforms regulation—which the Commission plans to launch to boost the Digital Single Market.

Currently there is a heated discussion as to whether online platforms should be subject to regulation at all.

While the European Commission may still take some time to elaborate on the contributions to the public consultation and eventually to state whether and to what extent some form of regulation may be warranted, recently, two national competition authorities, namely the UK Competition and Market Authority (CMA) and the Italian Competition Authority (ICA), made their view public.

The Position of the ICA

On September 29, 2015, the ICA issued an opinion on the legality of activities carried out by companies like Uber, which are carried out by either professional (e.g. Uber Black) or non-professional (e.g. Uber Pop) drivers through digital platforms accessible by tablets and smartphones.

The ICA first noted that it is not clear yet whether acting as an intermediary between the owner of a vehicle and a person who needs to make a trip by managing IT resources, is merely a transport service or, must be considered to be an electronic intermediary service or an information society service, as defined by Article 1(2) of Directive 98/34/EC.

The ICA noted that the Court of Justice of the European Union shall rule on this specific issue, and that until then it cannot be ruled out that the activity falls within the second category (i.e. an electronic intermediary service), which is not regulated, and therefore totally legitimate.

That said the ICA made the following findings, taking into account the characteristics of the activities carried out by Uber.

First, the ICA recognized that even traditional taxi services are more and more adopting technologies similar to those embraced by Uber. Yet, the ICA stressed that services such as Uber ensure a greater ease of use of the mobility service, a better response to a public need for which there is no current offering, and the ensuing reduction of the costs for users of such services. Last but not least, to the extent that it discourages the use of private means of transportation, Uber-like services also contribute to the decongestion of urban traffic.

Second, with regards to the activity of UberBlack or UberVan, i.e. transport services carried out by professional drivers, the ICA considers the current regulation (Italian Law No. 21 of 1992 concerning the non-linear public transport of people) as restrictive of competition insofar as its provisions restrict the geographic scope of the activity of vehicles to the municipality that has granted them a license, and further require that after each trip, each car must return to the base.

Third, with regards to the services such as those provided by UberPop, consisting of acting as an intermediary between the owner (non-professional driver) of a vehicle and a person who needs to make a journey within a city, the ICA observed that the Court of Milan ordered the blocking of UberPop throughout the national territory allegedly because this services would breach the rules regulating the taxi industry and may be characterized as an act of unfair competition. In that respect, the Court held that UberPop’s activity cannot be carried out to the detriment of people’s safety, in terms of cars used for the service, the suitability of drivers, as well as insurance coverage.

Yet, the ICA held that, even so, any form of regulation of such new services, if at all necessary, should be the least invasive as possible. In that respect, the ICA eventually singled out measures such as a registry for online platform providing such services and the provision of certain requirements for drivers.

The Position of the CMA

The position held by the UK Competition and Market Authority is even firmer than that of its Italian counterpart.

Preliminarily, while it recognized that “private hire vehicles” need the protection of appropriate regulation, the CMA considered that consumers also benefit from effective competition exerting downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on service quality and standards.

The CMA takes the view that innovative services (which include app-based booking systems) may drive efficiencies through which it is possible to offer benefits such as lower prices and greater responsiveness to demand. The introduction of new services also has an inherent benefit in the form of greater choice for consumers.

From a general stand point, the CMA thus considers that competition should only be compromised or restricted by regulatory rules to the extent that doing so is absolutely necessary for consumer protection. Above all, regulation should not favor certain groups or business models over others and any measures that restrict the choices available to consumers should be minimized.

The CMA focused on a number of regulatory proposals (made by the Authority Transport for London or “TfL”) that might have the greatest impact on competition.

5-minute wait requirement. TfL proposes that operators must provide booking confirmation details to the passenger at least 5 minutes prior to the journey commencing.

According to CMA, this proposal reduces the competitiveness of alternative services than black cabs by artificially hampering the level of service that new services can provide.

Approval for changes to operating models. TfL proposes that operators will be required to seek TfL approval before changing their operating model. The CMA considers that ex ante regulation of business models is liable to reduce incentives for innovation (a key competitive parameter) and by extension to restrict competition.

Mandatory pre-booking facilities. In the CMA’s view, mandating ancillary functions (such as a facility to pre-book up to seven days in advance) can place undue burdens on some providers, leading to increased costs for private hire vehicles and thus distorting competition, as those unable or unwilling to provide these functions will be excluded from the market. The CMA notes that in instances where consumers find ancillary facilities useful, they are likely to be provided by a competitive market where different offerings proliferate.

Fixed landline telephone requirement.  Similarly, the CMA believes that TfL’s proposal whereby operators must have a fixed landline telephone number which must be available for passenger use at all times, could raise barriers to entry (entrants would have to provide both a number and staff to handle calls) as well as restricting innovation (including platform-based business models) and could therefore lead to reduced competition between private vehicle operators. Moreover, it is not clear that it is necessary to make this functionality mandatory, as consumers may not value having a landline number to contact to choose private hire vehicle operators that provide one.

Requirement to specify the fare in advance. Another proposal that the CMA rejects is mandating operators to specify the fare for each journey prior to the commencement of that journey.  According to the CMA, the supply of a precise and fixed fare at the time of booking would effectively prohibit innovative pricing models that could be more efficient than pre-calculated fares (e.g. by varying according to supply and demand). This would remove another parameter of competition among private hire vehicle operators.

Drivers to only work for one operator at a time. TfL further proposed a requirement that licensed private hire vehicle drivers can only work for one operator at a time, claiming that this is necessary to reduce the risk of drivers working excessive hours for a number of different operators.

The CMA notes that this proposal may not be suitable or necessary to meet the stated objective. First, TfL’s proposal seems to address only excessive hours among drivers working for multiple operators, and not the risk of excessive hours among drivers working for a single operator, or the danger of black cab drivers working excessive hours.

More interestingly, the CMA believes that ‘multi-homing’ (i.e. the ability of drivers to work for multiple platforms) can allow drivers to switch their supply to where it is needed in the market. Mandatory single-homing can create a strong network effect, as it gives drivers the incentive to only work for the platform with the most customers. The consequence could be fewer private hire vehicle operator platforms, or even a single dominant platform, with the potential for all the consumer harm that platform dominance might bring.

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