In a judgment delivered yesterday the Court of Justice once again looked at the legal environment of Uber’s business model. Similarly to its earlier ruling (see our post CJEU gives Member States a green light to regulate Uber), the Court classified the services provided by Uber not as information society services, but rather as services in the field of transport and denied the applicability of the European framework on services liberalisation to the analysed context.
Setting the scene
The background of Uber France was analogous to Uber Spain. Both cases referred to the UberPOP business model, i.e. the one in which the smartphone app provided by Uber Technologies Inc. is used to connect passengers with non-professional drivers (the situation is different in a yet another pending case concerning Uber Black). The differences were subtle: in Uber Spain, the case referred to the civil proceedings brought against Uber by a taxi drivers’ association based on general rules on unfair competition. By contrast, Uber France dealt with a private prosecution and a civil action brought against Uber by a specific taxi driver based on a newly introduced provision of French criminal law. On both occassions the provider of the contested smarthphone app sought to rely on EU law to protect its freedom to provide information society services across EU. Both times - in vain.
The legal dilemma in Uber France
The more specific question in the commented case was whether the aforesaid provision of French law - which prohibited and penalised the organisation of a system for putting customers in touch with persons who engage in the carriage of passengers in breach of applicable market access requirements - constituted "technical regulation" within the meaning of Directive 98/34/EC as amended by Directive 98/48/EC (later replaced by Directive 2015/1535). Relying on such an interpretation, Uber argued that the provision could not be enforced against it because it had not been notified to the European Commission.
Indeed, Article 8(1) of Directive 98/34/EC, as amended, required Member States to immediately communicate to the Commission any draft technical regulation including any "rules on services". Article 1(5) defined a rule on services as "requirement of a general nature relating to the taking-up and pursuit of [information society] service activities ..., in particular provisions concerning the service provider, the services and the recipient of services, excluding any rules which are not specifically aimed at [information society] services". The directive did not elaborate on the consequences of a failure to notify; however, according to the settled case law of the Court, such a failure renders the adopted technical regulation inapplicable and therefore unenforceable against individuals (see paras. 35-39 of Advocate-General's opinion).
Against this background the national court decided to stay the proceedings and ask the Court of Justice for an interpretation of Directive 98/34/EC, as amended.
Judgment of the Court
The judgment in Uber France does not come as a big surprise - indeed, the Court decided to follow its earlier line of reasoning as well as the argumentation of AG Szpunar (see also our post The Uber saga continues) and refused to provide the defendant with a helpful hand. The Court, once again, focused on the classification od services provided by Uber and found them to fall outside the scope of Directive 98/34/EC, as amended, and Directive 2006/123 on services in the internal market. Consequently, to the extent the national provision applied to services of this kind, the provision itself fell outside the scope of both liberalisation directives.
In this short entry I will not argue either in favour or against the classification made by the Court - the issue is by no means black-and-white and continues to divide the academic community. Instead, I will focus on the quality of legal reasoning in Uber France, of which, I believe, one could have expected more.
The questions referred by the national court in the commented case revolve around the nuanced terminology used in Directive 98/34/EC, as amended, particulary the notion of a "rule on services". One problematic element of this term - the quality of not being "specifically aimed" at information society services - was already highlighted before. In the subsequent paragraph Article 1(5) provides for further interpretative elements, which the referring court seemed to consider relevant.
The Court of Justice, however, did not elaborate on any of these elements. It limited itself to rejecting the qualification of services provided by Uber as information society services, holding that the intermediation service provided by that company was "inherently linked" to the offer transport services and thus constituted a service in the field of transport. In doing so, it relied on two criteria: the fact that the drivers and passengers would not have been led to provide or use the transport services without the Uber app and - the criterion which I personally find more convincing - the fact that Uber exercised "decisive influence" over the conditions under which the relevant transport services were provided (para. 21). The Court went on to recall that services provided by Uber also fell outside the scope of Directive 2006/123 on services in the internal market, which does not apply to transport. Because the judgment is essentially limited to these insights it does not bring anything new beyond what we already know from Uber Spain.
The Court's self-restraint may be frustrating to the reader, who may be tempted to look for more clues that the judgment actually provides. What, in my view, does not follow from Uber France is that an existence of a business model which falls under the national provision while not qualifying as an information society service automatically disqualifies such a provision as being "specifically aimed" at information society services. Assessment of the detailed wording of Article 1(5) of Directive 98/34/EC, as amended, including references to the statement of reasons of national provisions as well as to an implicit or incidental effect of such provisions on information society services can still be relevant. But does this make any difference for the procedural situation of Uber? The judgment in Uber France does not really tell.