Facing criminal investigations and government inquiries around the world, Uber Technologies Inc. has lost its license to operate in London in a surprise decision that potentially affects 3.5 million people and 40,000 drivers who use the app in Europe’s largest city.
Regulators in London faulted Uber’s safety and security practices in revoking its permit starting at the end of the month, concluding the company is not “fit and proper to hold a private hire operator license.”
The company has 21 days to appeal, and can continue to operate during the appeal process. “We intend to immediately challenge this in the courts,” said Tom Elvidge, general manager of Uber in London.
Uber has faced resistance in markets from Paris to the Philippines, but London’s ruling is one of the most aggressive to date. The decision pits the popularity of the free-wheeling company among millions of customers, against regulators and taxi drivers who want tighter controls over the company’s operations.
The outcome also has financial implications for Uber at a time when its backers are in talks involving a potential $12 billion stake from SoftBank Group Corp. and other investors. London is one of the most established and lucrative markets for the company valued at about $70 billion.
As Uber has upended the global transportation industry, it has also invited controversy. City officials cited Uber’s use of a secret software tool called “Greyball” that the company built to avoid regulators. Uber was also accused of failing to report crimes or conduct background checks on drivers. Authorities faulted Uber earlier this year for allowing a London driver who had sexually assaulted a rider to get back on the road.
Uber’s “approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility,” the regulator, Transport for London, said in a statement.
The decision was cheered by the city’s traditional black cab industry, which has been hurt by the proliferation of Uber drivers and has aggressively pushed for tighter regulation of the San Francisco-based ride-hailing service. Taxi drivers, many of whom now use the rival apps Gett and MyTaxi, must go through extensive testing before receiving a license, while Uber drivers have fewer requirements.
“All companies in London must play by the rules and adhere to the high standards we expect,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a statement. “Providing an innovative service must not be at the expense of customer safety and security.”
Uber cars have filled London streets since it’s arrival in the British capital in 2012, identifiable by the smartphones drivers keep holstered to their windshield. Uber says 3.5 million people use its app every three months.
While its corporate image has taken a hit in recent months, city officials are now risking a backlash from customers who find it’s often cheaper and more convenient than hailing a black cab. In a previous showdown with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, Uber lobbied its customers to fight proposed restrictions.
“By wanting to ban our app from the capital Transport for London and the Mayor have caved in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice,” said Elvidge. “If this decision stands, it will put more than 40,000 licensed drivers out of work and deprive Londoners of a convenient and affordable form of transport.”
London’s decision adds to the problems facing Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s new chief executive officer, who is juggling a host of controversies ranging from allegations of sexual harassment, a lawsuit accusing the company of stealing self-driving car technology from Alphabet Inc. and a bribery investigation in Asia.
“No company can behave like it’s above the law, and that includes Uber,” said Maria Ludkin, Legal Director of GMB, the U.K.’s drivers union. “No doubt other major cities will be looking at this decision and considering Uber’s future on their own streets.”
Uber disputed the allegations made by regulators. The company said it conducted thorough background checks of drivers and had made several enhancements to improve safety. The company also said the Greyball program had never been in the U.K. “for the purposes cited by TfL.”
Some are already coming to the defense of Uber. “It’s not in the interests of our economy, people in London and in this case, drivers, to restrict new products and services,” said Tom Thackray, director at the Confederation of British Industry.
Although the conclusion of the ruling may take some time to play out in the U.K. courts. rivals are already circling Uber users. Daimler-owned mytaxi, a black cab hailing app, is currently offering 50 percent off its fares from Friday.
“We have long questioned whether Uber has been operating within the letter and the spirit of regulation in London,” said Andy Batty, U.K. general manager at mytaxi, accusing the company of using private equity capital to drive out competition.