Regulation of Taxi Apps: Two Judgements and Bad News for Uber

By Martin Miernicki

On 20 December 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) handed down its decision in Asociación Profesional Élite Taxi v. Uber Systems Spain SL (C-434/15), holding that Uber’s services, in principle, constitute transportation services and thus remain regulated by national legislation. On 10 April 2018, the court essentially confirmed this ruling in Uber France SAS v. Nabil Bensalem (C-320/16).


Background of the cases

Both cases centered on the legal classification of the services provided by Uber under EU law. In the first case, the Asociación Profesional Elite Taxi – a professional taxi drivers‘ association – brought action against Uber before the national (Spanish) court, stating that the company infringed the local rules on the provision of taxi services as well as the laws on unfair competition. The national court observed that neither Uber nor the non-professional drivers had the licenses and authorizations required by national law; however, it was unsure whether the services provided by Uber qualified as “information society services” within the meaning of article 2(a) of Directive 2000/31/EC (E-Commerce Directive) or rather as a “service in the field of transport”, thereby being excluded from said directive as well as the scope of article 56 TFEU and article 2(2)(d) of Directive 2006/123/EC (Services Directive). The second case revolved around a similar question against the background of a private prosecution and civil action brought by an individual against Uber under French law.


Decisions of the court

The CJEU considered Uber’s service overall and not merely its single components, characterizing Uber’s business model as providing, “by means of a smartphone application, […] the paid service consisting of connecting non-professional drivers using their own vehicle with persons who wish to make urban journeys, without holding any administrative licence or authorisation.” (C-434/15, para 2). The CJEU held that Uber offered not a mere intermediation service which – as inherently linked to smartphones and the internet – could, seen in isolation, constitute an information society service. Rather, Uber provides an integral part of an overall service “whose main component is a transport service”. Thus, Uber’s services qualified as “services in the field of transport”, thereby rendering the E-Commerce Directive, the Services Directive and Art 56 TFEU inapplicable. Relying heavily on these findings, the court reached a similar conclusion in the subsequent case and essentially confirmed its prior ruling.


Meaning of the decisions and implications

The judgements are a setback for Uber and services alike, because – both being qualified as transportation services – they cannot rely on the safeguards and guarantees provided for by EU law (especially the freedom to provide services). On the contrary, the CJEU confirmed that transport services remain a field which is still largely in the member states’ domain. This is especially challenging for companies which, like Uber, specialize in a field where the regulatory requirements differ widely, also within the borders of one single member state. It should, however, be noted that the court gave its opinion on the service as described above; one might reach a different conclusion should Uber adapt or restructure its business model.

The dispute in the Uber cases can be seen in the larger context of “sharing economy” business models. Another example for a company active in this field would be Airbnb, for instance. European policy makers are aware of this emerging sector and have launched several initiatives to tackle the issue at the EU level. Among these are the Communication from the Commission on a European agenda for the collaborative economy (COM(2016) 356 final) and the European Parliament resolution of 15 June 2017 on a European Agenda for the  collaborative economy (2017/2003(INI)).