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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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THE LATEST: Another E-Commerce Retailer Pleads Guilty in DOJ Investigation of Online Promotional Products Industry

On August 14, 2017, we reported on an online retailer’s guilty plea for conspiring to fix the prices of “customized promotional products” such as silicone wristbands and lanyards, and the ongoing US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the online promotional products industry. On August 22, 2017, DOJ announced two more guilty pleas in the investigation, announcing that e-commerce company Custom Wristbands Inc. and its owner and CEO Christopher Angeles had pled guilty to violating the Sherman Act, 15 USC § 1.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • According to an Information filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas by DOJ and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, Defendant Angeles and his co-conspirators engaged in a conspiracy from at least as early as June 2014 through at least June 2016 to “suppress and eliminate competition by fixing and maintaining prices of customized promotional products, including wristbands, sold in the United States and elsewhere.”
  • DOJ alleges that Defendants and co-conspirators attended meetings and communicated via text and online messaging platforms regarding pricing for the online sale of customized promotional products.
  • Defendant Custom Wristbands Inc. (d/b/a Kulayful Silicone Bracelets, Kulayful.com, Speedywristbands.com, Promotionalbands.com, Wristbandcreations.com, and 1inchbracelets.com) has agreed to pay a criminal fine in the amount of $409,342. Defendant Angeles faces up to 10 years in prison and up to a $1 million fine.
  • DOJ has announced that both defendants have agreed to cooperate with the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • The DOJ Antitrust Division continues to investigate the “online promotional products industry” and we anticipate that additional defendants will be charged over the course of the investigation. 
  • DOJ continues to hold individual executives accountable in price fixing cases, even where their corporations plead guilty and agree to cooperate with ongoing investigations.



European Commission Final Report on E-Commerce Sector Inquiry

On 10 May 2017, the European Commission published its final report on the e-commerce sector inquiry. The report is divided into two sections, covering e-commerce issues in relation to consumer goods and digital content. It also identifies business practices that might restrict competition and limit consumer choice. It would be advisable for e-commerce businesses to review their commercial practices and revise them as necessary in light of the Commission’s stated aim of targeting e-commerce business practices that may negatively impact the functioning of the Digital Single Market.

Read the full article. 




McDermott EU Competition Annual Review 2016

It is difficult for General Counsel and their teams to monitor all new developments adequately. With the growth of the Internet and the daily updates to EU competition rules, everyone receives and has access to masses of information, but it is difficult to select that which is really relevant to one’s business.

McDermott’s EU Competition team across Brussels, France, Germany and Italy has authored the EU Competition Annual Review 2016 to help General Counsel and their teams to focus on the essential updates that they should be aware of.

This Special Report summarizes recent developments in EU competition rules during the year 2016 where several new regulations, notices and guidelines were issued by the European Commission and many interesting cases were decided by the General Court and the EU Court of Justice.

All these new rules and judicial decisions can be relevant for international companies operating in the EU. Indeed, in addition to the daily update, this booklet provides an overview of the main recent developments in EU competition rules and can be kept as a ready reference when dealing with complex issues of EU competition law.

Read the full report.




E-Commerce: The European Commission Completes Its Preliminary Report on the E-Commerce Sector Inquiry

In May 2015, the European Commission (the Commission) launched a sector inquiry in the field of e-commerce in the context of its Digital Single Market strategy. Its aim was to obtain an overview of prevailing market trends, gather evidence on potential barriers to competition linked to the growth of e-commerce and understand the prevalence of certain, potentially restrictive, business practices and the underlying rationale for their use.

In the course of this inquiry, the Commission gathered evidence from nearly 1,800 companies active in the e-commerce of consumer goods and digital content and analyzed around 8,000 distribution contracts. On 18 March 2016, the Commission published its initial findings showing that geo-blocking is widespread in the European Union due to unilateral decisions by companies not to sell abroad as well as contractual barriers set up by companies preventing consumers from shopping online across EU borders.

On 15 September 2016, the Commission completed its preliminary report (the Preliminary Report), which confirms the fast growth of e-commerce in the European Union and identified business practices that might restrict competition and limit consumer choice. (more…)




EU Commission Releases First Findings on Geo-Blocking in E-Commerce Sector Inquiry

On 18 March, the European Commission (Commission) published its initial findings on geo-blocking in the framework of its ongoing antitrust sector inquiry into e-commerce.

The findings are based on responses to questionnaires sent to more than 1400 retailers and digital content providers from all 28 EU Member States in 2015.

The questionnaires focused on geo-blocking practices in the sales of goods (clothing, shoes and accessories, consumer electronics, household appliances, computer games and software, toys and childcare articles, books, media carriers, cosmetic and healthcare products, sports, outdoor, house and garden equipment), and in the provision of digital content services (films, sports, TV programmes, music).

The findings suggest that geo-blocking is a widespread practice. Where the sale of tangible goods is concerned, in most cases the decision to have geo-blocking in place is made unilaterally by the retailer.  In only 12 percent of the cases, retailers were forced by contract to put restrictions in place on cross-border sales.

On the other hand, geo-blocking in digital content is for the most part a contractual requirement imposed by suppliers (for 59 percent of the respondents).

The data on geo-blocking now published by the Commission seem to strengthen the Commission’s suspicions that geo-blocking practices are widespread and may significantly impact intra-EU cross-border trade. The Commission said that geo-blocking may be in breach of competition law, particularly when it results from agreements between businesses or if practised by a dominant market player.

However, the Commission also recognized that retailers and service providers may have valid reasons to put geo-blocking in place to restrict cross-border sales. In light of this, the Commission may decide to address the conditions under which geo-blocking is justified in further legislation or guidance to businesses first, rather than take  immediate enforcement measures on the back of the sector inquiry.

Any ensuing enforcement action would have to take place on a case-by-case basis, separately from the overall sector inquiry.

It is expected that the Commission will present its final report on the present inquiry by the middle of 2016.




New EU Consumer Contracts Legislation Comes Into Force on 13 June 2014: E-Commerce Businesses Should Review Terms and Conditions of Sale Now

by Rohan Massey, Lionel Lesur, Veronica Pinotti, Vincent Schröder

All e-commerce businesses active in the European Economic Area (EEA) should review their current processes, policies, terms and documentation and implement any changes before 13 June 2014 to ensure they are compliant with the new national laws of the EU Member States implementing EU Directive No 2011/83/EU on consumer rights. In those Member States that fail to implement the Directive into their national laws, the provisions of the Directive will directly apply.

Please click here  to read the full article.




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