Uber has faced fierce opposition from traditional taxi firms since launching in Europe in 2011

Europe's top court to intervene in Uber dispute

Europe’s top court has been asked to rule on whether taxi-hailing app Uber is a "mere transport service" or a digital service, as the US start-up claims.

In a case that could set a precedent for legal battles across the EU a judge in Barcelona has referred a case brought by the city's main taxi operator against Uber towards the end of last year to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg.

The judge asked the ECJ to rule on whether Uber is a "mere transport activity" or "an electronic intermediation or information society service", which tallies with the company's claim that it is just an online intermediary linking willing drivers to passengers.

The service has faced fierce opposition from conventional taxi services since it launched in Europe in 2011, with many complaining that it competes unfairly by bypassing local laws on licensing and safety.

"Today's news means that the ECJ will now determine if the national rules currently being applied to digital services like Uber are legal and appropriate under European law," said Mark MacGann, Uber's head of public policy for EMEA, on a conference call with journalists.

As a society service Uber could enjoy certain protections under EU rules, but being declared a "mere transport service" could leave it subject to stricter rules on licensing, insurance and safety.

To date, Uber, the world's most valuable venture-backed start-up with a valuation of $40bn, has been hit with court injunctions in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

The ECJ was also asked to rule on whether the restriction placed by Spain on Uber are lawful given that Uber is registered in the Netherlands, another EU country. Uber has already filed complaints with the European Commission in Brussels against a new French law which it says favours local taxis, and against the German and Spanish court bans.

MacGann said he expected to have a decision from the ECJ by autumn next year.

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