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EU Pleads With Countries To Go Easier On Uber and Airbnb

June 2, 2016, 10:52 AM UTC
The Uber logo is displayed on the window of a vehicle
The Uber Technologies Inc. logo is displayed on the window of a vehicle after dropping off a passenger at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014. Uber Technologies Inc. investors are betting the five-year-old car-booking app is more valuable than Twitter Inc. and Hertz Global Holdings Inc. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

The European Commission isn’t happy with all the crackdowns EU national and local authorities have been making on “collaborative economy” platforms such as Uber and Airbnb.

On Thursday, the EU executive body issued much-anticipated guidance for public authorities across the bloc, saying the “patchwork of different regulatory actions creates uncertainty” for everyone from the companies involved to their more traditional rivals, as well as consumers.

“Absolute bans of an activity should only be a measure of last resort,” the Commission said, while also advising that licenses should only be required “where strictly necessary to meet relevant public interest objectives.”

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The guidance may prove controversial in places like France, where the authorities have placed heavy restrictions on services such as Uber, and the cities of Barcelona and Berlin, where Airbnb has met official resistance.

This is, after all, just guidance—not a legislative proposal. It sets out the Commission’s own standpoint, and public authorities don’t have to play along for now.

At the moment, there is no law at the EU level to determine things like the threshold at which an occasional Uber driver becomes a professional driver, or the number of days per year for which short-term Airbnb rentals should be allowed.

The Commission has over the last couple of years warmed to the so-called collaborative economy, this year stepping in to challenge the French law that targets Uber and other non-traditional taxi firms. Former digital economy commissioner Neelie Kroes, who left her post in 2014, recently caused a stir by joining Uber’s public policy board.

“Today we are providing legal guidance for public authorities and market operators for the balanced and sustainable development of these new business models,” said Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the commissioner in charge of the internal market and entrepreneurship. “We invite member states to review their regulation in the light of this guidance and stand ready to support them in this process.”

In its guidance, the Commission said countries “should ensure that consumers enjoy a high level of protection from unfair commercial practices, while not imposing disproportionate obligations on private individuals who only provide services on an occasional basis.” This is likely a reference to, for example, authorities requiring that Uber’s drivers all get official taxi-driver licenses.

For more on Uber, watch our video.

BEUC, the European consumer organization, tentatively welcomed the Commission’s stance.

“We agree with the Commission that there are benefits in this sector and they should be embraced, and of course this is an economy which is really shaking up the consumer experience in many areas,” BEUC spokesperson Johannes Kleis told Fortune. “But it also does raise important questions, because consumers still need adequate protection if they use car sharing or accommodation services.”

As regards the employment status of the people supplying the services, the Commission stepped back a bit, pointing out that EU countries retain control over their own labor law. However, it said countries “may wish to consider criteria such as the relation of subordination to the platform, the nature of the work and remuneration.”

“Collaborative economy” providers and platforms should pay their taxes just like everyone else, the Commission added. Again, tax collection rules are down to individual countries, not the EU.