On 2 February 2017, the European Commission published a press release announcing that it had launched three separate investigations in the e-commerce sector (two investigations on its own initiative and one following complaints from customers). These investigations are part of the Commission’s broader Digital Single Market Strategy, which aims to eliminate barriers that hinder cross-border online sales [see our October 2016 Newsletter].
The first investigation relates to alleged anti-competitive agreements concluded by manufacturers of consumer electronics. Several undertakings are suspected of having restricted the ability of online retailers to set their own retail prices for consumer electronics products such as notebooks and home audio systems. Interestingly, the Commission is also looking into the potential aggravating effects of pricing software used by online retailers that automatically adapts retail prices to those of competitors.
The second investigation concerns "geo-blocking" practices in the PC video games industry. Several video game publishers and a game distribution platform are suspected of having used "activation keys" which granted access to purchased games only to consumers in particular EU Member States. This allegedly resulted in a restriction of parallel trade and prevented consumers from buying cheaper games that may have been available in other Member States [see our April 2016 Newsletter for more information on geo-blocking.
The third investigation was launched following complaints from customers and relates to agreements between tour operators and hotels. The Commission suspects that certain clauses in these agreements discriminated between customers based on their nationality or country of residence. Because of these clauses, certain customers may have been blocked from seeing full hotel availability or booking hotel rooms at the best prices available. Allegedly, this would lead to market partitioning.
These investigations show that following the e-commerce sector inquiry launched in May 2015 the Commission is prepared to take concrete action in particular where the agreements or conduct at hand hinder cross-border online sales.