Uber's Fight Over French Criminal Sanctions Weighed by EU Court

(Bloomberg) -- The services offered by Uber Technologies Inc. continue to puzzle the European Union’s top judges as they consider a second case that debates whether it is a transportation supplier or a digital service, this time related to French criminal sanctions.

The question cropped up several times in a hearing Monday at the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Uber says it’s a digital service; the French government says it’s a transport company.

In the next few months, the same 15 judges will decide a separate Spanish case on the same debate. In the French case, Uber is challenging a 2014 law, called Thevenoud, that it says targeted apps such as UberPop, a service that the American company no longer runs in France.

“All of these disputes relate to the innovations that Uber has brought to a service that has been entirely static for 60 to to 70 years, namely the taxi profession,” said Hugues Calvet, a lawyer at Bredin Prat in France, who represents Uber.

The company’s local executives were hauled to court in Paris over UberPop, its most controversial service, which let unlicensed drivers use their own car to pick up riders for low fees. Legal challenges have forced the company to halt UberPop in several European nations, including France, the Netherlands and Sweden.

The disputes come down to what defines Uber as a business. While EU states control their own transport regulations, they must tell the European Commission about changes to legislation covering digital services.

Last year, a court in Lille sought the EU tribunal’s guidance on the changes made in the 2014 legislation, and whether France’s failure to flag the rule changes was a violation. Uber said the rules were a new “technical regulation” that relates to a digital service and as such, the EU should have been notified.

France says that Uber at its core is a transport provider, and the argument that it’s a digital service is “a manifestly erroneous interpretation,” Raphael Coesme, a lawyer for the French government, told the court.

The French government “is of the view that this falls outside the scope of the obligation to notify the EU,” he said. Services such as those offered by Uber, “whose main objective is to realize a transportation service, must be considered exclusively as a transport service,” he said.

Last June, Uber and two executives were fined a total of 850,000 euros ($920,000) by a French criminal court over claims that UberPop broke the law before the company suspended the ride-sharing service. Half the fine was suspended.

Advocate General Maciej Szpunar said he plans to give a non-binding opinion in the case on July 4.

The case is: C-320/16, Criminal proceedings against Uber France SAS.