The Uber logo displayed on a phone screen

Uber faces fresh legal complications in the US and Europe

Image credit: Reuters/Toby Melville

Ride-hailing company Uber will face a criminal probe by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) over allegations of theft of trade secrets. Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice has been advised to classify Uber as a transport service, potentially leading the company to face tougher regulations.

When engineer Anthony Levandowski left Waymo – owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc – he allegedly stole 14,000 confidential files relating to its self-driving car programme. According to Waymo, when Levandowski joined Uber he passed on the stolen information.

The information is alleged to have been integrated into Uber’s Lidar system, a sensor system designed to use light pulses to let autonomous vehicles detect its surroundings. The stolen information could have been used to bypass years of research and development.

Alphabet Inc has since taken Uber to court in San Francisco, beginning a legal battle which could determine which Silicon Valley giants will dominate in the race to develop commercially successful driverless cars.

The judge presiding over the case, US District Judge William Alsup, has referred the case to the DoJ for a full criminal investigation.

Uber had put forward a bid for the allegations to be heard in private arbitration rather than by a jury in a public court, which has now been rejected. Waymo described the bid as a “desperate” attempt to avoid the court’s jurisdiction.

Alsup has also partially granted Waymo’s bid for an injunction against Uber’s self-driving programme to prevent Levandowski and the stolen documents being used in Uber’s work on Lidar. Uber had already announced that Levandowski would stand down from working on Lidar during the case, but the injunction entirely prevents Uber from using Waymo’s trade secrets.

Uber have not publicly denied that Levandowski took Waymo documents, but state that the documents did not make their way to Uber.

Meanwhile, Uber are facing another criminal investigation by the DoJ over the use of its “Greyball” software, which helped its drivers evade law enforcement officers in areas in which Uber had not been fully licensed to operate.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the ride-hailing company is facing mounting legal difficulties before the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Following a case brought to the court by Barcelona-based taxi drivers, ECJ judges have been advised to treat Uber as a transport company rather than an app. The advice, provided by Advocate General Maciej Szupunar, is not legally binding but a strong indicator of the future ruling.

Szupunar said that the same licensing and safety rules that apply to competitors should also apply to Uber, as it is not merely a digital intermediary connecting drivers with passengers. Its drivers “do not pursue an autonomous activity that is independent of the platform”, he advised.

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