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European Commission Consultation on Ex Ante Regulation of Online Platforms: Is Change Coming?

In parallel to a public consultation to seek feedback from the public regarding the New Competition Tool, the European Commission (Commission) is consulting on a proposal for an ex ante regulatory instrument that would ensure that “online platform ecosystems controlled by large online platforms that benefit from significant network effects remain fair and contestable, in particular in situations where such platforms may act as gatekeepers”.

This proposal stems from a range of concerns which, according to the Commission, could lead to large-scale unfair trading practices, less innovation and reduced consumer choice.

Feedback on the Commission’s inception impact assessment was due on 30 June (85 opinions were collected). The period for stakeholders from public and private sectors to contribute to the Commission’s public consultation (via online questionnaires) ends on 8 September 2020.

Identified Need to Regulate Large Online Platforms

In its inception impact assessment, the Commission noted that the number of digital ecosystems controlled by a handful of large online platforms have multiplied and businesses and (final) consumers have become increasingly dependent upon them.

According to the Commission, these large online platforms can gain market power due to their ability to accumulate a considerable amount of data, to access different technical assets and to easily expand into new markets and leverage their advantage (i.e. data) from their services. As a result, the key role that these “gatekeepers” play in the online economy has led to imbalances in bargaining power vis-à-vis users and competitors, making it particularly difficult for smaller digital firms to bring innovative solutions to the market. The Commission is further concerned that the current EU regulatory framework does not specifically address “the economic power” of these platforms at the source of these issues aforementioned.

Notably, Regulation (EU) 2019/1150 of 20 June 2019 on promoting fairness and transparency for business users of online intermediation services (Platform to Business Regulation or P2B Regulation) came into effect in July 2020. It aims to address the imbalance that exists between online platform providers and business users by imposing a number of transparency obligations on online intermediation services, such as e-commerce market places, applications stores, online social media. However, the Regulation does not take account of market power and further does not specifically address, in its present form, the issues stemming from gatekeeper power. The P2B Regulation also leaves outside of its scope emerging practices, such as certain forms of ‘self-preferencing’, data access policies, and unfair contractual provisions. As such, the Commission does not believe that the P2B Regulation, as is, can address the problems that it has observed.

Proposed Options

In this context, the Commission has proposed three alternative or complementary policy options:

  • Option 1: A revision of the P2B Regulation, adding prescriptive rules on specific practices that are currently addressed by transparency obligations in the Regulation, as well as on aforementioned new emerging practices.
  • Option 2: A horizontal framework empowering a dedicated regulatory body at EU level to collect information from gatekeepers for the purposes of assessment of their business [...]

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European Commission Initiates Consultation on Possible New Competition Investigation Tool

On 2 June 2020, the European Commission (the Commission) published its inception impact assessment (or roadmap) on the possible adoption of regulation that would introduce a new market investigation tool. This assessment was immediately followed by the launch of a public consultation to seek views and feedback from the public regarding such a tool. The new tool would enable the Commission to investigate and impose behavioural and/or structural remedies on businesses with significant market power, whether dominant or not – and without any prior finding of a competition law infringement. As such, this new tool could present a significant risk and potential burden for companies with market power. On the other hand, it offers potential benefits to market participants, such as new entrants, who might otherwise see their access to markets foreclosed.

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EU Commission Issues Another Fine for Restrictions on Cross-Border Licensed Merchandise Sales

The European Commission has reiterated its position that if a business allows for the non-exclusive licensing of its products in the EEA, such licensor can no longer control where, to whom, and in what manner (online/off-line) the products can be sold within the EEA.

On 30 January 2020, the Commission fined NBCUniversal Media, LLC, and other Comcast Group companies (collectively, NBCUniversal) EUR 14.327 million for restricting licensees from selling licensed products across customer groups and across countries within the European Economic Area (EEA). This is the third time in one year that the Commission has fined a brand owner for such restrictions, following Nike and Sanrio.

Although agreements restricting out-of-territory sales (i.e., market partitioning by territory) have long been prohibited under Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the Commission’s increased enforcement activity on vertical restraints is remarkable.

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FTC and Pennsylvania Attorney General Challenge Health System Combination

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Pennsylvania Attorney General (AG) have challenged the proposed combination of The Penn State Hershey Medical Center (Hershey) and PinnacleHealth System (Pinnacle) in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The FTC complaint alleges that the combination would create a dominant provider, reduce the number of competing health systems in the area from three to two, and result in a 64 percent share of the market for general acute care inpatient hospital services.

Hospitals and health systems pursuing mergers with a competitor should be mindful of the antitrust enforcement climate in health care and incorporate antitrust due diligence into their early transaction planning. Moreover, this case highlights that providers seeking to proactively alleviate the potential anticompetitive effects of a transaction should anticipate continued skepticism by the FTC of claims of procompetitive efficiencies and its dismissal of the merging parties’ newly negotiated, post-closing pricing agreements with payors.

Summary of Administrative Complaint

Parties and Transaction

Hershey is a nonprofit healthcare system headquartered in Hershey, Pennsylvania, about 15 miles west of Harrisburg. The system has two hospitals in the Harrisburg area: the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, an academic medical center affiliated with the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, and the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, the only children’s hospital in the Harrisburg area.  Hershey has 551 licensed beds and employs 804 physicians offering the full range of general acute care services.  In its 2014 fiscal year, Hersey generated $1.4 billion in revenue and discharged approximately 29,000 patients.

Pinnacle is nonprofit healthcare system headquartered in Harrisburg. Pinnacle’s system includes three hospitals in the Harrisburg area: PinnacleHealth Harrisburg Hospital, PinnacleHealth Community General Osteopathic Hospital, and PinnacleHealth West Shore Hospital. The system has 662 licensed beds divided among the three hospitals. In its 2014 fiscal year, Pinnacle generated $850 million in revenue and discharged more than 35,000 patients.

Pursuant to a letter of intent executed in June 2014, the parties would create a new legal entity to become the sole member of both health systems. The parties would have equal representation on the board of directors of the new entity.

Relevant Markets

The FTC complaint alleges that the appropriate scope within which to evaluate the proposed transaction is the market for general acute care (GAC) inpatient hospital services in a four-county area around Harrisburg. This alleged product market encompasses a broad cluster of medical and surgical diagnostic and treatment services that require an overnight in-hospital stay. Although the effect on competition could be analyzed for each affected medical procedure or treatment, the FTC considered the cluster of services as a whole because it considers the services to be “offered to patients under similar competitive conditions, by similar market participants.”

The FTC limited the geographic market to an area which includes Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry and Lebanon Counties. These four counties, according to the FTC, are “the area in which consumers can practicably find alternative providers of [GAC services].” Consequently, hospitals located outside of this area [...]

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