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2,000 European etailers probed by antitrust regulator over ecommerce practices

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25th Jun 2015
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More than 2,000 ecommerce firms across Europe have been asked to hand over sensitive commercial information and copies of contracts to the antitrust regulator as part of a sweeping probe into potential abuses in the sector.

The aim of the investigation, first announced by Margrethe Vestager, head of antitrust at the European Union in March, is to establish whether individual businesses are putting up contractual or other barriers to limit how consumers undertake online shopping across national borders, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It could lead to formal antitrust cases being taken out against firms suspected of violating EU law by abusing their dominant market position.

The European Commission, the region’s top antitrust regulator, sent out its first batch of questionnaires to companies in all 28 EU countries last week, which included online marketplaces, manufacturers that sell goods online, content producers and internet streaming services.

The documents, which are more than 150 pages in length, are intended to give regulators “a better understanding of ecommerce-related business practices as they affect providers of digital content”, according to one copy seen by the Journal.

Recipients are being asked to provide sales figures worldwide and broken down by EU country, in some cases dating back as far as 2010. They have also been requested to list their top 30 providers of digital content and to hand over copies of “all agreements currently in force” with them.

Other required information includes:

  • How possible contract clauses could restrict how content is sold across national borders.
  • How much each content provider is paid.
  • Business models.
  • Tariff structures.
  • How contracts are negotiated.
  • How financing decisions are arrived at.

The deadline for responses is 31 July, but a second questionnaire on the online sale of physical goods is also due to be sent out next week. The EU plans to publish a preliminary report on its findings by mid-2016 and, following a public consultation, to release a final report in early 2017.

Although the probe is not specifically targeted at US companies, the activities of some US ecommerce giants are expected to come under scrutiny due to their European dominance, which is causing concern in top policy circles.

The EU is already investigating firms such as Google, Amazon and Apple over issues ranging from possible data privacy violations to anti-competitive behaviour and tax payment.

It has also warned of its intention to open a major inquiry into how large online companies operate in Europe amid concerns that they exert too much power over smaller ones, in a move that could result in stringent new regulations.

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