European Commission publishes a preliminary report on the e-commerce sector inquiry

By Nikolaos Theodorakis

On 6 May 2015, the European Commission launched a sector inquiry into e-commerce within the context of the Digital Single Market strategy, and in connection with Article 17 of Regulation 1/2003. In March 2016, the Commission published its initial findings on geo-blocking, which refers to business practices whereby retailers and service providers prevent the smooth access of consumers to the digital single market. In doing so, geo-blocking usually has three dimensions: (i) it prevents a consumer from accessing a website because of his IP address; (ii) it allows the consumer to add an item to his online shopping basket, but it cannot be shipped to his location and (iii) it redirects the consumer to another local website to complete his order.

As part of the sector inquiry, the Commission requested information from various actors in e-commerce throughout the EU, both related to online sales of consumer goods (e.g. electronics and clothing) as well as the online distribution of digital content. For that purpose, the Commission gathered evidence from nearly 1,800 companies operating in e-commerce and analyzed around 8,000 distribution contracts. The inquiry wished to look into the main market trends and gather evidence on potential barriers to competition linked to the growth of e-commerce.

E-commerce has been growing rapidly over the past years, and the EU is the largest e-commerce market in the world. As a result, any barrier in online trade may have severe consequences and distort healthy competition. In September 2016, the Commission published a preliminary report with certain findings. It identified issues arising from distribution agreements, which pertain to trade in goods, and licensing agreements, which pertain to trade in services.

 

Issues arising from distribution agreements

Distribution agreements may create geo-blocking restrictions, both from the manufacturers’ and the retailers’ side.

Manufacturers have adjusted to the increasing popularity of e-commerce by adopting a number of business practices that help them control the distribution of their products and the positioning in the market. These practices are not by default illegitimate, however under specific conditions, they can be.

For instance, manufacturers use selective distribution systems in which products can only be sold by pre-selected authorized sellers online. They also use contractual sales restrictions that may make cross-border shopping or online shopping more difficult and ultimately harm consumers since they prevent them from benefiting from greater choice of products and lower prices. The reasoning behind selective distribution systems is to control the quality of the product and safeguard brand consistency. This, nonetheless could classify as a vertical restraint and could be considered discordant with the principles of EU competition law.

Retailers use geo-blocking to restrict cross-border sales. Several retailers collect data on the location of their customers with a view to applying geo-blocking measures. This most commonly takes the form of refusal to deliver and refusal to accept payment from cards issued in other countries.

 

Issues arising from licensing agreements

With respect to digital content, the availability of licenses from the holders of copyrights in content is essential for digital content providers and a key determinant of competition in the market. The Preliminary Report finds that copyright licensing agreements can be complex and exclusive. The agreements provide for the territories, technologies and digital content that providers can use. As such, the Commission is expected to assess on a case-by-case basis whether certain licensing practices are unaccounted for and restrict competition.

In fact, one of the key determinants of competition in digital content markets is the scope of licensing agreements that determine online transmission. These agreements, between sellers of rights, use complicated definitions to define the reach of the service, creating differences in technological, temporal and territorial level. These contractual restrictions are practically the norm, whereas access to exclusive content increases the attractiveness of the offer of digital content providers.

A striking 70% of digital content providers restrict access to their digital content for users from other EU Member States. Further, the 60% of digital content providers are contractually required by rightsholders to geo-block. This practice is more prevalent in agreements for films, sports and TV series. Licensing agreements enable rightsholders to monitor that content providers comply with territorial restrictions, otherwise they ask for compensation. These agreements usually have a very long duration and they may make it more difficult for new online business services to emerge and try to win a stake in the market.

Additional questions arise when online rights are sold exclusively on a per Member State basis, or bundled with rights in other transmission technologies and then are not used. This might signal a semi perfect price discrimination policy depending on how much money each Member State is willing to pay, and a consequent further balkanization of the digital single market.

 

Next Steps

After publishing the preliminary report, the Commission is soliciting views and comments of interested stakeholders until 18 November 2016. The final report of the sector inquiry is expected in the first quarter of 2017. As a follow-up to the sector inquiry, the Commission may further explore if certain practices are compatibility with the EU competition rules and launch investigations against specific distributors and/or resellers on matters of both goods and digital content.

Finally, the results of the sector inquiry provide useful information for the debate on Commission initiatives relating to copyright and the proposed geo-blocking regulation.

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