October 26, 2020

Uber Wins Dubious Honor Of Being First Big Tech Company To Bully A Small Nation Using Corporate Sovereignty

Six years ago, when Techdirt first started writing about the investor-state dispute system (ISDS) — or corporate sovereignty as we prefer to call it — it was largely unknown outside specialist circles. Since then, more people have woken up to the power of this apparently obscure element of international trade and investment deals. It essentially gives a foreign company the ability to threaten to sue a nation for millions — even billions — of dollars if the latter brings in new laws or regulations that might adversely affect an investment. The majority of corporate sovereignty cases have been brought by the extractive industries — mining and oil. That’s not least because many of the laws and regulations they object to concern environmental and health issues, which have come to the fore in recent years. New legislation designed to protect local communities might mean lower profits for investors, who then often threaten to use ISDS if they are not offered compensation for this “loss”.

Big tech companies, for all their real or supposed faults, have not turned to corporate sovereignty as a way of bullying small countries — until now. En24 News reports that Uber is threatening to invoke corporate sovereignty in a dispute with Colombia. According to Uber:

a series of recent measures by the Republic have had a serious adverse impact on Uber’s investments in Colombia and the viability of its operations in the country. On December 20, 2019, for example, through the Superintendence of Industry and Commerce (“SIC”), the Republic ordered Uber, Uber Colombia, and another Uber subsidiary that will virtually cease to make the Uber Platform available of Associated Drivers and passengers in Colombia.

Uber points out:

other companies in Colombia and third countries that offer similar forms in Colombia have not undergone the same treatment and continue to operate in Colombia without similar interference from the Republic.

The company claims a wide range of harms:

The illegal order of the Republic to block the Uber Platform in Colombia also constitutes an act of censorship in contravention of international human rights instruments that protect net neutrality, freedom of expression on the internet and freedom of use of the internet.

At the moment, this is all just saber-rattling, designed to encourage the Colombian government to unblock Uber in the country. If it doesn’t, the company says, it will invoke the ISDS Articles (pdf) of the 2012 United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, and ask a tribunal to award compensation. Even if the current threat to use corporate sovereignty is not followed through, it is surely only a matter of time before another big tech company joins the ISDS club.

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