On 2 February 2017, the European Commission (EC) announced three separate investigations into online sales practices in the EU. It will assess whether various practices involving agreements between manufacturers and distributors are anti-competitive and in breach of EU competition law.
These investigations provide immediate guidance to companies engaged in similar practices and should also ultimately provide hard case guidance. They are major developments in the evolving analysis of the application of competition law in the EU to e-commerce restrictions.
The investigations concern respectively alleged resale price restrictions (RPM), alleged discrimination on the basis of location and alleged geo-blocking (in which companies prevent consumers from purchasing digital content based on the consumer's location or country of residence). As the EC pointed out in its press release announcing the investigations, the preliminary results of the EC's competition sector inquiry on e-commerce show that the use of these restrictions is widespread throughout the EU.
In the RPM investigation, the European Commission is investigating whether four manufacturers have breached EU competition rules by restricting the ability of online retailers to set their own prices for widely used consumer electronics products such as household appliances, notebooks and hi-fi products.
The discrimination case concerns hotel accommodation agreements between large European tour operators and hotels. The agreements in question may contain clauses that discriminate between customers, based on their nationality or country of residence — as a result, customers would not be able to see the full hotel availability or book hotel rooms at the best prices.
The geo-blocking case concerns bilateral agreements between a video game distribution platform, and five PC video game publishers. The investigation focuses on whether the agreements in question require that "activation keys" (used to confirm that a game is not pirated) allow access only to a purchased game in particular EU member states.