France Can Bring Criminal Charges Against Uber, Judges Rule

The EU's highest court ruled on Tuesday that France can bring criminal charges against Uber managers for running an illegal taxi service. France can do that without first notifying the European Commission, said the judges.

The case concerns a French law that deems it a crime to organize a taxi service without government approval. A criminal court in Lille, one of France's largest cities, brought charges against Uber over UberPOP, a ride-sharing service which used nonprofessional drivers to transport passengers to their destinations. Uber received a 800,000 euro fine and two executives were also fined, Reuters reported.

Uber France contended that criminal charges waged against its employees were unenforceable because France did not get approval for the new law from the European Commission. EU law requires member countries to notify Brussels of drafted legislation concerning digital services. Uber users hail a ride using a cellphone app.

But last year, after taxi drivers in Barcelona complained that Uber was being held to different standards from the cab companies in their city, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) classified Uber as a "transport" company — not a digital service.

In Tuesday's ruling, the ECJ said that UberPOP in France is "essentially identical" to Uber's service in Spain. In a written statement, the court said, "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 in advance of the draft legislation laying down criminal penalties for the exercise of such activities."

Uber says that the ruling won't affect its operations across France or the EU because UberPOP has already been discontinued in France. "This case is about whether a French law from 2014 should have been pre-notified to the European Commission and related to peer-to-peer services which we stopped in 2015," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement to NPR. "As our new CEO has said, it is appropriate to regulate services such as Uber and so we will continue the dialogue with cities across Europe."

What could the ruling mean for other tech companies that offer services in the EU, like Airbnb? Critics are concerned about whether it could thwart innovation in the digital sector. "It means that the European Commission will have limited power to prevent the adoption of national restrictive provisions," said Damien Geradin, founder of a Brussels-based law firm that specializes in EU competition law and intellectual property law, who spoke to The Financial Times.

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