Online auction commitments demonstrate digital markets are central to CMA’s priorities

The CMA has accepted commitments from ATG Media, the largest provider of online auction sites in the UK, to bring an end to practices which it considered hinders competition from rival bidding platforms (press release and decision here and here). 

ATG’s Live Online Bidding (LOB) platforms cover a wide range of markets, including: antiques and art; industrial and insolvency; and construction and agricultural equipment. 

LOB platforms are aggregators that host live auctions run by multiple auction houses. They aim to attract both individual bidders and auction houses to list live auctions. Traditionally live bidding was available only by attending in person or by telephone.

The CMA’s investigation began in November 2016 and focused on three practices:

  • obtaining exclusive deals with auction houses, so that they do not use other providers;
  • preventing auction houses getting a cheaper online bidding rate with other platforms through Most Favoured Nation clauses; and
  • preventing auction houses promoting or advertising rival live online bidding platforms in competition with ATG Media.
In order to bring the investigation to an end ATG has given the CMA legally binding commitments under the Competition Act 1998 to stop all three practices. 

The CMA’s Annual Plan 2017/18 (here) stresses the importance of digital markets in its enforcement priorities: “Online aspects of markets have become a major focus of our work, as many industries have become more digital in how they trade, raising important questions of policy and law.”

Online platforms (particularly those with market power) are likely to face increased scrutiny as competition authorities across the world focus ever more of their resources on the digital economy.   

Transparency may undermine online competition: Commission’s Final Report on the E-commerce Sector Inquiry

On 10 May 2017 the European Commission published its Final Report on the E-commerce Sector Inquiry, together with accompanying Q&As, and, for those who want something rather longer, a Staff Working Document

The inquiry, launched over 2 years ago, and part of the wider Commission Digital Single Market Strategy (see our earlier comment here) has gathered evidence from nearly 1,900 companies connected with the online sale of consumer goods and digital content.
The Report’s main findings

  • Price transparency has increased through online trade, allowing consumers instantaneously to compare product and price information and switch from online to offline. The Commission acknowledges that this has created a significant ‘free riding’ issue, with consumers using the pre-sales services of ‘brick and mortar’ shops before purchasing products online. 

  • Increased price transparency has also resulted in greater price competition both online and offline.  It has allowed companies to monitor prices more easily, and the use of price-tracking software may facilitate resale price maintenance and strengthen collusion between retailers.

  • Manufacturers have reacted to these developments by seeking to increase their control of distribution networks though their own online retail channels, an increased use of ‘selective distribution’ arrangements (where manufacturers set the criteria that retailers must meet to become part of the distribution system) and the introduction of contractual restrictions to control online distribution.
How about changes to competition policy? 

The Report does not advocate any significant changes to European competition policy, but rather confirms the status quo. The key point of interest are as follows: 

  • Selective distribution – whilst the Commission has not recommended any review of the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (‘VBER’) ahead of its scheduled expiry in 2022, the Commission notes that the use of selective systems aimed at excluding pure online retailers, for example by requiring retailers to operate at least one ‘brick and mortar’ shop, is only permissible where justified (for example in respect of complex or quality goods or to protect suitable brand image).

  • Pricing restrictions – dual pricing (i.e. differential pricing depending on whether sales are made online or through a bricks and mortar outlet) will generally be considered a ‘hardcore’ (or object) restriction of competition when applied to one and the same retailer, although it is capable of individual exemption under Article 101(3) TFEU, for example if the obligation is indispensable to address free-riding by offline stores.  

  • Restrictions on the use of marketplaces – the Report finds that an absolute ban on the use of an online marketplace should not be considered a hardcore restriction, although the Commission notes that a reference for a preliminary ruling is pending before the CJEU (C-230/16 - Coty Germany v Parfümerie Akzente).

  • Geo-blocking – a re-emphasis of the existing position on territorial and customer restrictions – active sales restrictions are allowed, whereas passive sales restrictions are generally unlawful. Within a selective distribution system, neither active nor passive sales to end users may be restricted. The Commission also make clear that companies are free to make their own unilateral decisions on where they choose to trade.

  • Content licensing – the significance of copyright licensing in digital content markets is noted, as is the potential concern that licensing terms may suppress innovative business practices.  

  • Big Data – possible competition concerns are identified relating to data collection and usage. In particular, the exchange of competitively sensitive data (e.g. in relation to prices and sales) may lead to competition problems where the same players are in direct competition, for example between online marketplaces and manufacturers with their own shop.  
What happens next?

The Commission has identified the need for more competition enforcement investigations, particularly in relation to restrictions of cross-border trade.  It is expected that more investigations will be opened in addition to those already in play in respect of holiday bookings, consumer electronics and online video games. In a more novel approach, the Commission’s press release also name-checks a number of retailers (in particular in fashion) who have already reformed their business practices “on their own initiative”.
  
The Commission also highlights the need for a consistent application of the EU competition rules across national competition authorities.  It remains to be seen whether the Commission will seek to use its enforcement investigations to address inconsistencies such as those evident in the more interventionist stance of some national authorities (e.g. the Bundeskartellamt) in respect of issues such as pricing restrictions.

Amazon’s E-Books antitrust saga - War now Peace?

Amazon has offered commitments to the European Commission to end the antitrust investigation into its use of ‘most favoured nation’ (MFN or parity) clauses in its e-books contracts with publishers, launched in 2015. The Commission is now inviting comments on these proposed commitments from customers and rivals. 

The Commission’s concern is that the clauses may breach EU antitrust rules and result in reduced competition among e-book distributors and less consumer choice.

Amazon’s MFN clauses require publishers to inform Amazon about more favourable terms or conditions offered to Amazon's competitors and to offer Amazon similar terms and conditions. This includes requiring publishers to offer Amazon any new or different distribution methods or release dates, any better wholesale prices or agency commissions, or to make available a particular catalogue of e-books.

The Commission considers that the cumulative effect of these clauses is to make it harder for other e-book retailers to compete with Amazon by developing new and innovative products and services. It also takes the view that imposing these clauses on publishers may amount to an abuse of a dominant market position.

In parallel, Audible, Amazon’s audio-books subsidiary, has announced the end of its exclusivity provisions in its distribution agreement with Apple following a joint antitrust investigation by the Commission and the German competition authority, the Bundeskartellamt. 

Amazon’s proposed commitments

Amazon disputes the competition law basis for the Commission’s investigation.  Nevertheless, in order to bring the investigation to a close (and to avoid the risk of a costly infringement decision), it has offered commitments:
  • Not to enforce:
    1. any clause requiring publishers to offer Amazon similar terms and conditions as those offered to Amazon's competitors; or 
    2. any clause requiring publishers to inform Amazon about such terms and conditions. 
  • To allow publishers to terminate e-book contracts that contain a clause linking discount possibilities for e-books to the retail price of a given e-book on a competing platform. Publishers would be allowed to terminate the contracts upon 120 days' advance written notice.
  • Finally, not to include, in any new e-book agreement with publishers, any of these clauses.
The commitments would apply for five years and (as is usual for behavioural commitments) be subject to oversight by a monitoring trustee.

E-Books - déjà vu? 

This is not the first time the Commission has investigated the e-books sector. In 2011 it opened antitrust proceedings against Apple and five international publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette Livres, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Georg von Holtzbrinck Verlagsgruppe) on the basis that it considered that they had colluded to limit retail price competition for e-books. In that case the companies also offered commitments to address the Commission's concerns (see our previous comment).

Where does this leave MFNs?

The Commission and national competition authorities have conducted investigations into MFN clauses in a number of other sectors, including online motor insurance and online sports goods retail, on which we have previously commented.  

While MFNs are not per se unlawful, and in some circumstances may even be pro-competitive, companies should carefully consider their possible anti-competitive effects before including them in new contracts. 

EU Court to rule on ability of luxury brand owners to control online distribution

Following a dispute in Germany between perfume and cosmetics manufacturer Coty and one of its retail distributors (Parfümerie Akzente), a German court has sought clarifications on the proper application of the EU competition rules in respect of online distribution to the Court of Justice of the EU ("CJEU").  The case will likely decide how much control luxury brand owners have over distribution of their products on online platforms such as Amazon or eBay.  Whilst not a party to the German case, Amazon.com has recently sought permission to intervene in the case in order to ensure the views of third party online platforms are heard.

The original dispute arose in Germany after Coty sought to prevent Parfümerie Akzente from making sales through Amazon’s market place. 

On 18 July 2016 the Frankfurt Court of Appeals requested the CJEU to provide a preliminary ruling on whether a restriction by luxury brand owners on the use of online platforms is compatible with Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”).
 
Questions to the CJEU

The CJEU has been asked to consider the following:

  • Is the use of selective distribution systems by luxury brand owners to protect the ‘luxury image’ of their products compatible with Article 101(1) TFEU?
  • Is a general ban on online platforms compatible with Article 101(1) TFEU, even if the platform meets the criteria of the selective distribution system?
  • Does prohibiting the use of online platforms constitute a restriction by object under Article 101(1) TFEU as it restricts customer group retailers can sell to and their ability to make passive sales?

For luxury brand owners, the ability to have some control over the retail environment, whether online or offline, is an important consideration when setting up a selective distribution policy.  The nature of the products concerned will also be relevant in assessing whether restrictions are permissible.  Whether Amazon will be able to argue its case will however depend on whether the Court grants it permission to intervene. Demonstrating sufficient interest has historically been a difficult hurdle for companies to overcome, particularly where they have not been involved in the proceedings before the national court.  

Background to online selective distribution

The European Commission Guidelines on Vertical Restraints (“the Guidelines”) allows a supplier operating a (qualitative) selective distribution system to impose equivalency requirement restrictions on authorised distributors in respect of online versus offline sales.  For example, obligations on authorised retailers to meet equivalent criteria in respect of online product presentation and sales advice as applies to their bricks and mortar sales.  However, Coty was seeking to impose an outright ban on the use of third party platforms (such as Amazon marketplace) and no doubt sought solace in the Guidelines which do specifically permit restrictions on sales through third party internet sites where those sites display the platform’s name and/or logo (Guidelines, paragraph 54). 

In a number of Decisions on selective distribution agreements, the German Bundeskartellamt ("FCO") has taken a dim view of prohibitions on online sales.  For example, the FCO’s investigation into Sennheiser’s selective distribution system resulted in the removal of a prohibition on sales on third-party platforms.  In that case Amazon itself was already an authorised distributor but the ruling opened up the possibility of sales being made over third party platforms, for example Amazon Marketplace.  In its investigations into Adidas and ASICS the FCO also found that general prohibitions on sales via third party platforms in selective distribution systems restrict intra-brand competition, and harmed small and medium-sized distributors. 

Conclusion

Brand owners and online retailers will be watching this case with interest as the CJEU will clarify a central question of whether it can ever be acceptable under competition law to restrict internet sales in order to protect brand image.




Online poster seller in the frame for algorithm-centred price-fixing cartel

A few days ago, the CMA issued a decision confirming that two Amazon Marketplace vendors had fixed prices by using and configuring “commercially-available automated repricing software”.  The vendors, Trod Limited and GB eye Limited, which sell licensed sport and entertainment merchandise adorned with images of popular stars like Justin Bieber and 1D, colluded to offer online shoppers the same prices for products and co-ordinate price changes. 

Although the CMA accepts that online pricing tools can “help sellers compete better, for the benefit of consumers”, thereby benefiting competition, in this instance, the parties applied these tools to illegally fix prices at an artificially high level.  The CMA fined Trod £163,371, reflecting a 20% discount for Trod’s admission of liability and co-operation during the investigation.  GB eye, however, obtained 100% immunity for ‘whistle-blowing’, reflecting the CMA’s continued support for companies who come forward first.  

The CMA opened its investigation last year following a dawn raid at Trod’s premises and the home of one of its directors.  The CMA’s searches were co-ordinated with searches carried out by the British police on behalf of the US Department of Justice who were investigating the same conduct for sales through Amazon’s US Marketplace.  Following the dawn raid, the DoJ prosecuted both Trod and its director for price-fixing.  Trod accepted liability in the US as well, pleading guilty a few days ago (the DoJ has not yet provided details of any sanctions), but the director is still awaiting trial.  This provides an important reminder of the wider ramifications that anticompetitive behaviour can have, resulting in criminal sentences as well as civil fines and/or director disqualification.  

The CMA's investigation is yet another example of the authorities’ focus on digital markets, complementing the Commission’s e-commerce sector inquiry (see here and here).  The case follows in the footsteps of the CJEU’s Eturas decision which established the potential for liability for participants in a platform which fail to distance themselves from automated pricing updates (see here).  While the price-fixing agreement itself is hardly novel, the use of software to implement the agreement is more ‘innovative’ – and will doubtless not be the last such case to come before the competition authorities. 

New technology and competition law – mapping the way

In a recent judgment, the High Court recognised that the rapid development of new products and services online presents challenges for competition law, making clear that we must have regard to the “particular characteristics” of this new online environment. The Court went on to rule in favour of Google in this abuse of dominance claim.

The claim related to the introduction of a Google Map at the top of Google’s search results page in response to certain search queries. Following his initial cautionary comments regarding new technologies, the specialist competition judge, Mr Justice Roth, went on to rule that, on the assumption that Google held a dominant position, it had not committed an abuse. He also held that Google's conduct was in any event objectively justified as it had advantages that benefitted consumers and was a proportionate way of making those advantages available to consumers. 

This important judgment offers some comfort for those working in the area, showing that the courts will grapple with the complexities of online markets when making important rulings like this one. There has been extensive commentary on the implications of the judgment including over on the Chillin’ Competition blog (here and here), and courtesy of Monckton Chambers, here.

Another interesting point in this case, was the Court’s use of a ‘new technology’. At trial, ‘hot-tubbing’ was used for the first time in a competition claim. This involved both parties’ economic experts giving evidence at the same time (rather than consecutively) and being questioned directly by the judge, with only a small window of opportunity for the barristers to ask further questions. This proved useful in narrowing down the issues and facilitating genuine debate between the experts – it remains to be seen whether a precedent has been set for future trials. 

Finally, and in the interests of full disclosure, we should mention that Bristows represented Google in this case and needless to say, we are delighted with the outcome!

Analogue taxis and hotels beware! The EU Internal Market Strategy is published

The Commission has published its new internal market strategy. The areas that are likely to be of particular interest are those which overlap with the Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy, launched in May 2015. 


These are: 

1. Enabling the development of Europe’s sharing economy

The most eye catching, and potentially controversial, initiative is the promotion of Europe’s online sharing economy, such as Uber or Airbnb.  The commission plans to publish guidance early next year on the position and rights of sharing firms under existing EU rules and also a review of national regulation of sharing services. Interestingly, Jyrki Katainen, a commission vice-president, compared the banning of UberPop (a disruptive car sharing service) with attempts by horse riders to ban cars. 

2. Preventing discrimination on territorial grounds 

Also up for review is the denial of access to cheaper websites, offers and discounts based on territorial restrictions. The commission plans to introduce new rules, and take legal action against Member States, to ensure commercial terms do not discriminate.  The importance of this objective is demonstrated by the commission’s crusade against the geo-blocking of access to sport and film content.    

3. Consolidating Europe’s intellectual property framework

The commission has ambitious plans to modernise the European intellectual property framework, notably for pharmaceutical and other industries. The plans for next year include a review of the EU intellectual property enforcement framework.

The commission’s other initiatives are: 

4. Helping small and medium enterprises and start-ups

In relation to SMEs, the aim is enhanced access to finance and to reform the VAT regime. An in important practical idea is legislation on businesses insolvency, to make sure entrepreneurs have a second chance after being declared bankrupt. 

5. Removing barriers for cross border trade in services

The commission is, rightly, concerned that the EU Services Directive has not achieved its intended objectives. It is well known that architects, engineers, and accountants are often prevented from offering services in other Member States. This objective has the potential to be something of a game changer, however it is one European has consistently struggled to implement in the face of resistance from many professional bodies.
 
6. Addressing restrictions in the retail sector 

There are plans to tackle barriers to setting up retail businesses in other Member States, including: size; location; the requirements for local permits; and discriminatory planning rules. 
 
7. Modernising the European Standards System

The adoption of European wide standards will be reviewed to take into account the increased importance of information and communication technology. 
 
8. Achieving transparent and accountable public procurement

Member States will be able to access assistance with the procurement aspects of large infrastructure projects. 

9. Promoting a culture of enforcement in the single market

There will be a renewed commitment to ensuring that the principle of mutual recognition is respected, accompanied by more rigorous enforcement action against Member States. 

Conclusion

Ambitiously, the commission’s strategy aims to makes significant progress by 2017. However, Europe has attempted to address most of these issues on numerous previous occasions and the degree to which this attempt translates into concrete action will depend on the political will to address powerful vested interests in Member States.  

Noel Watson-Doig

Online platforms hold on tight...

...Geo-blocking and online platforms are the next dip in the roller-coaster that is the e-commerce sector enquiry - which is fast gathering pace. 

On 24 September 2015 the European Commission announced that it is now launching two public consultations: one on geo-blocking and the other on online platforms. 
The consultations’ aim is to identify and categorise potential antitrust problems and other practices which may create barriers to cross-border trade. Of note perhaps is the comment in Director General Laitenberger’s “retour aux sources” speech on 21 September that the competition authorities may use different tools to tackle the same behaviour. The suggestion is that where the behaviour is practised by a dominant undertaking, then competition law armoury may be used while behaviour by non-dominant undertakings may require other “legislative initiatives”. It is becoming clearer that there are certain topics that are very much in or out of the competition law remit of this particular enquiry...
 The timeline for the next steps and beyond are summarised below.

Timeline
UK parallel enquiry

In parallel to the above consultations, the UK House of Lords launched its own enquiry into online platforms. The deadline for responding to this enquiry is 16 October 2015.

The aim is to provide a “constructive contribution” to the EU debate. The aim is to identify the benefits that platforms can provide as well as collect data to inform any recommendations for regulatory change that the U.K. may propose.

More Questions than answers?

In short, for those involved in the sector, it can fairly be said that lots of people and institutions are currently asking lots of questions – some of which may be at cross purposes. What is less clear at the moment is who is responding and how the responses will in fact be used to inform policy. 

“Everything online” including “everything copyright”

On 9 October 2015, the European Commission published its clearance decision in relation to the joint venture between three collecting societies (GEMA, STIM and PRSfM). This joint venture - and the European Commission’s (Commission) decision to clear it (following commitments offered by the parties) is of particular note, not only because it fits under the e-commerce umbrella (it is all about the licensing and administration of online rights in musical works), but also because it represents a further move towards breaking down the practice by collecting societies of dividing up the licensing and administration of copyright along national boundaries, long-criticised by the Commission. As highlighted by Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager in her recent speech in Florence:**   barriers to cross-border trade can be created either by national copyright laws or by the use of contractual terms in copyright licences. This decision deals with the latter.

To be clear, up to now, reciprocal representation agreements between collecting societies have permitted each participating collecting society to license the repertoires of other collecting societies around the world to users but only for use in its own territory. Although collecting societies have started granting multi-territorial licences for their own repertoires, they have licensed the world repertoire of other collecting societies only on a mono-territorial basis for their home country. 

Several “firsts”

The joint venture will provide new products on both sides of this two-sided market:

  • The joint venture will provide multi-territorial licences to online platforms for all three collecting societies’ musical repertoires. Going forward, the likes of iTunes will need to negotiate only one single multi-territorial licence for all three repertoires instead of negotiating a licence for each country where the platforms operate. Small collecting societies who do not license their repertoire on a multi-territorial basis will also be able to request that their repertoire is included in any multi-territorial online licensing offer. 
  • Collecting societies and large music publishers will also have the opportunity to obtain copyright administration services on a multi-territorial basis for the first time. Until now such services have been offered for a single country, namely that of the collecting society providing the service. 
What was the Commission concerned about?

The Commission’s concerns lay in the market for the provision of copyright administration services to collecting societies and particularly to large music publishers (so-called “Option 3 publishers”) in relation to transactional multi-territorial licences. These publishers tend to license the mechanical rights for their Anglo-American repertoires themselves but obtain a mandate from the PRSfM to license the performing rights. They still obtain administration services from collecting societies. One of the Commission’s concerns was that in return for granting a mandate to license the performing rights for the Option 3 publisher’s repertoire, the PRSfM would oblige Option 3 publishers to obtain all their administration services from the joint venture, thus excluding collecting societies who wished to compete in providing these services.  In the eyes of the Commission, the joint venture might also impose exclusivity provisions or bundle such services in an attempt to foreclose competitors. Lastly, the Commission was concerned that the joint venture may make it difficult for users of its database to transfer their data to a competitor if they decided to switch to a different collecting society.

The commitments made by the parties

The PRSfM committed: 

  • not to use its position in relation to Option 3 publishers’ performing  rights to require them to obtain their copyright administration services from the joint venture. Other collecting societies and Option 3 publishers will be able to pick and choose the services they require from the joint venture and such services will not be bundled together.
All three collecting societies committed that the joint venture would:

  • not enter into exclusive contracts other than for database services; 
  • offer copyright administration services to competing copyright societies on fair reasonable and non-discriminatory terms when compared with the terms offered to its parent companies; 
  • facilitate switching; and 
  • allow termination of the contract at any time on the provision of reasonable notice.
Not only will the Collective Management Directive (“CMD”) be directly applicable to the joint venture, but the joint venture itself puts into practice the idea, made legally binding in the CMD, that musical repertoires should be able to be aggregated into multi-territorial online licences regardless of the location of the right-holder or the collecting society. In addition, the Commission’s decision may pave the way for easier switching by rights holders which will increase their choice of collecting society.  Offline licensing and mono-territorial online licensing and administration are not the subject of the decision and will continue to function as before.

It will not be surprising if the impact of the CMD, the European Commission’s investigations in relation to the e-commerce sector enquiry as well as the review of copyright rules across the EU, lead to a change in the landscape relating to the licensing and administration of online musical rights, and pave the way for more exciting “tie-ups” in the future. Who knows if the offline world of music licensing will follow?

**Speech by Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager,  at the 19th IBA Competition Conference, Florence 11 September 2015 

No rest for the Commission

You could be forgiven for thinking that after a busy year DG Competition would take a break over the summer period.  In fact, it continues to focus on the e-commerce sector inquiry which it launched in May (see our previous commentary here and here). 

Over the past few weeks DG Comp has continued to send information requests to numerous stakeholders in the digital market throughout the EU. This includes suppliers, wholesalers, online platforms and online retailers. The currently proposed timetable for the inquiry is as follows:
Earlier this summer the Commission also made a number of other significant moves in the e-commerce sector. First, it opened an investigation into Amazon’s e-book distribution agreements and in particular its ‘most-favoured-nation’ clauses. Second, it approved under the EU Merger Regulation the proposed creation of a joint venture for multi-territorial online music licensing and copyright administration services by three music collecting societies (we will be writing a post on this shortly). Third, it sent a Statement of Objections to MasterCard in relation to the MasterCard’s inter-regional inter-change fees and its rules on cross-border acquiring. It is alleged that these rules prevent arbitrage on interchange fees in different Member States thereby artificially raising costs for consumers using the card.

National authorities also remain active: the German Bundeskartellamt recently concluded its investigation into the selective distribution system of Asics which prohibited dealers from: (i) using online marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon; (ii) supporting price comparison engines; and (iii) using its trade mark on third party sites, even to guide customers to the site of an authorised dealer.  The regulator found that each prohibition was itself a hardcore restriction, and taken together essentially amounted to a de facto ban on internet distribution, causing serious restraints to competition.  The Commission is bound to be following such outcomes with great attention.  

With so much activity in the area it is clear that the Commission, as well as the national authorities, are scrutinising closely the behaviour of those working in the e-commerce sector.  We will be sure to keep readers updated as developments in the area unfold...