Commissioner Vestager announces proposal for e-commerce sector inquiry

By Gabriele Accardo

On March 26, 2015, Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager announced the imminent launch of a competition inquiry in the e-commerce sector. After this issue of the Newsletter had been completed, the Commission announced (see also the Memo) the launch of the E-commerce Sector Inquiry, which will be addressed in the next issue.

The sector inquiry will focus on private—and in particular contractual—barriers to cross-border e-commerce in digital content and goods, since significant cross-border barriers to e-commerce still exist within the EU.

Knowledge gained through the sector inquiry will not only contribute to enforcing competition law in the e-commerce sector but also to various legislative initiatives which the Commission plans to launch to boost the Digital Single Market.

The Commission updated the Block Exemption Regulation and the Guidelines on Vertical Restraints in 2010 (see Newsletter 3/2010, for additional background). The review made clear that, in principle, every distributor must be allowed to use the Internet to sell its products, whereas consumers must be allowed to look for the best deals online wherever they want.

While Commissioner Vestager noted that these rules are there to give legal certainty to companies and make sure that the law is applied in the same way throughout Europe, she also acknowledged that online business and markets move quickly and the Vertical Guidelines can only provide a general framework.

While there are a number of ongoing investigations (licensing contracts between US film studios and European broadcasters; online restrictions in the consumer-electronic market; and geo-blocking measures concerning certain video games sold online), the varied nature and scope of these investigations means that any insights will be incomplete and sector-specific.

In order to obtain thorough market knowledge, the Commission will seek information from, among others, holders of content rights, broadcasters, manufacturers, merchants of goods sold online, and the companies that run online platforms such as price-comparison and marketplace websites. Commissioner Vestager has stated that a possible target date for preliminary findings is mid-2016.

In the past, the Commission has conducted competition inquiries in various sectors, including energy, financial services and pharmaceuticals. As a result of such inquiries, the Commission has carried out a number of individual investigations.