Europe

German Competition Authority Investigates Amazon

The German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has opened abuse proceedings against Amazon for practices related to the German marketplace amazon.de. This move comes not long after the European Commission initiated a preliminary investigation into Amazon’s use of transaction data.

In both the German and the EU case, the competition concerns appear to be linked to Amazon being not only the largest online retailer but also the largest online marketplace for competing retailers. There are, however, important differences between the two investigations: While the Commission is looking at “exclusionary abuse,” i.e. conduct hindering the competitive opportunities of its rivals, the FCO investigates potential “exploitative abuse,” i.e. imposing conditions that are significantly more onerous for retailers using the marketplace than they would be in a competitive environment (see the FCO’s press release).

The approach of the FCO is based on special features of German competition law, which facilitate proceedings against abuses of market power:

First, regarding the issue of market power, the German prohibition on abusive market conduct applies not only to companies with a dominant market position (as under EU law) but also to companies with “relative market power,” which is a less demanding standard. A company has relative market power if small or medium-sized customers or suppliers are dependent on it and cannot reasonably switch to other companies for the supply or the sale of a particular type of goods or services. The FCO believes that Amazon may be dominant or may have relative market power because it functions as a “gatekeeper.” In fact, Amazon has become so powerful in Germany that many retailers and manufacturers depend on the reach of its marketplace for their online sales.

Second, regarding the existence of abuse, the FCO suspects that Amazon is abusing its market position to the detriment of sellers active on its marketplace by imposing unfair terms and conditions. Here, the FCO relies on the case law of the German Supreme Court, which has decided that the use of unfair terms and conditions by a dominant firm can constitute an abuse – provided it is because of its dominance or relative market power that the firm is able to impose such terms and conditions. In other words: there must be a causal link between the firm’s market power or dominance and the unfair terms and conditions. It is not yet clear how the FCO will establish such a link.

Regarding the terms and practices that will be scrutinized, the FCO has listed the following provisions as being potentially illegal:

  • liability provisions
  • choice of law and jurisdiction clauses
  • rules on product reviews
  • the non-transparent termination and blocking of sellers’ accounts
  • withholding or delaying payment
  • clauses assigning rights to use the information material that a seller has to provide with regard to the products offered
  • terms of business on pan-European dispatch

The FCO’s Amazon investigation shows some similarities to its ongoing proceedings against Facebook (see our previous Blog post). Both cases are focused on the use of unfair terms and conditions. The FCO has said that it will issue its Facebook decision in early 2019. We expect that decision to set the direction for the Amazon investigation.

 

Platform Bans: German Competition Authority Critical Despite Coty Judgment

Since last year’s “Coty” judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), it may have seemed settled that authorized dealers in a selective distribution network can be prohibited from selling products via third-party marketplaces, i.e. online platforms operated by third parties such as Amazon.[1] However, in a recent position paper, the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has expressed a much more nuanced view.[2]

According to the Coty judgment, EU competition law generally allows the banning of online third-party platforms in selective distribution systems, especially for luxury goods. First, where such a ban is applied without discrimination and in a proportionate manner to the distribution of luxury goods and with the objective of preserving the luxury image of such goods, the ban is not considered a restriction of competition. Second, in all other cases – for example where the goods in question are not “luxury goods” – the ban may be justified by the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (VBER), provided the market shares of the parties are below 30 percent.[3]

The FCO, however, makes it clear that there are several issues that remain unsolved, even after the Coty ruling.

First, the FCO points out that the Coty judgment deals with “luxury goods” and that it cannot simply be applied one-to-one to other types of products, including high-quality products. Thus platform bans for non-luxury goods may, in fact, infringe competition law, even within selective distribution systems. In the absence of a clear definition separating “luxury goods” from other (high-quality) branded products, accepting outright bans of online platforms will, therefore, be anything but automatic.

Second, the FCO explains the policy that it proposes to apply outside the (limited) scope of the Coty ruling, i.e. to non-luxury goods, including high-quality branded products: it considers that a general prohibition on using third-party online platforms is likely excessive and that less restrictive measures, such as specific quality requirements, will normally suffice to protect a brand image. For example, the FCO explains that dealers could be required to have their own online shop on the marketplace rather than share a product page with other dealers.

Third, the FCO also puts a question mark over the application of the VBER to third-party platform bans. The ECJ decided in its “Pierre Fabre” judgment that manufacturers generally cannot prevent their distributors from using the internet as a sales channel.[4] An outright ban on internet sales is normally an infringement of EU competition law. However, in “Coty,” the ECJ added that a mere ban of third-party platforms does not amount to a prohibition on using the internet – provided distributors are able to run their own online shops and are unrestricted in using the internet for advertising and marketing purposes so that customers can find their online offers via online search engines. The FCO now points out that consumer preferences and the relative importance of different sales channels may vary between EU member states. According to the FCO, marketplaces and price comparison sites are much more significant in Germany than in other EU member states. In Germany, banning the use of marketplaces could reduce a distributor’s visibility to such an extent that the ban becomes equivalent to a complete ban of online sales and, thus, unlawful.

In a nutshell, the FCO is not prepared to generally accept the legality of third-party platform bans and it can be expected that it will continue to challenge such prohibitions if they have restrictive effects on competition.

However, the FCO also recognizes that Amazon Marketplace has become increasingly important for manufacturers and that many manufacturers can no longer afford to exclude this particular sales channel from their distribution system. The rising market power of Amazon Marketplace is of particular concern for the authority because of Amazon’s dual business model. Amazon is a “hybrid platform” that acts both as an intermediary for online dealers and as an authorized dealer for the same products. The FCO highlights the risks that follow from this setup: in particular, independent dealers could be disadvantaged or squeezed out of the market. The FCO is very clear about its intention to keep online markets open and that it will closely monitor Amazon’s growing market power with this in mind.

_________________________ 

[1] EU Court of Justice judgment of December 6, 2017, Coty Germany GmbH vs. Parfümerie Akzente GmbH, C-230/16, EU:C:2017:941.

[2] “Competition and Consumer Protection in the Digital Economy: Competition restraints in online sales after Coty and Asics – what’s next?” published on the FCO website (link).

[3] Commission Regulation (EU) No 330/2010 of April 20, 2010 on the application of Article 101(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to categories of vertical agreements and concerted practices.

[4] EU Court of Justice judgment of October 13, 2011, Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS vs. Président de l’Autorité de la concurrence a.o., C-439/09, [2011] ECR I-9447.

UK’s Proposed Investment Scrutiny Powers Are Far-Reaching

Douglas Lahnborg and Matthew Rose present a comparative discussion on the recently issued National Security and Investment White Paper, which proposes a significant expansion of the UK government’s powers to scrutinize foreign investment beyond those available in other leading economies. The white paper introduces powers to intervene in a broad range of transactions in any sector, regardless of deal value, the transaction parties’ market shares, or their revenues. If the proposals are brought into force in their current form, the UK regime would be one of the most stringent in the world, with wide-ranging implications for foreign and domestic companies and projects in sensitive sectors, including technology, energy, infrastructure, telecommunications, real estate and financial services. Read more here.

European Crackdown on Violations of Merger Control Procedural Rules Continues

Last year on this Blog we wrote about the uptick in enforcement action by European competition authorities against violations of merger control procedure (see here).

Yesterday, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) indicated that this trend is set to continue, issuing a fine of £100,000 for a breach of an Interim Order imposed on Electro Rent in its acquisition of Microlease. This is the first time the CMA has fined a company for such a procedural breach.

On the face of it, the fine seems harsh given that the relevant action – serving notice of termination of a lease without the CMA’s prior consent – was discussed with the appointed Monitoring Trustee prior to coming into effect.[1] Indeed, the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) recently confirmed that parties may take certain actions without violating the standstill obligation imposed under the EU Merger Regulation – including terminating agreements – where such actions do not contribute to the implementation of a transaction.[2] In doing so, the ECJ’s ruling confirmed the commonly held view that merging parties are permitted to take certain steps allowing them to prepare for implementation of a transaction without violating merger control procedural rules.

Given the developing case law on standstill obligations, companies involved in M&A will need to revisit pre-completion protocols, noting that the EU approach seems to be diverging from the CMA’s somewhat more rigid approach to merger control. READ MORE

CMA Launches Consultation Concerning Changes to its Jurisdiction over M&A in the Tech Sector

The UK government considers that transactions in the following sectors can raise national security concerns:

1. quantum technology;
2. computing hardware; and
3. the development or production of items for military or military and civilian use.

In order to allow the UK’s Secretary of State to intervene in transactions in these sectors, the UK government has proposed amendments to the Enterprise Act 2002 that would expand the Competition & Markets Authority’s (“CMA”) jurisdiction to review transactions in these sectors from a competition perspective. READ MORE

Enhancing Fairness in Platform-to-Business Relations in the EU Through a Change of Legal Landscape

Online platforms have become a crucial infrastructure for businesses. They enable small businesses to have easy access to millions of potential customers and create an unprecedented choice of products and services for them. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey on the use of online marketplaces and search engines by small and medium-sized enterprises (“SMEs”),[1] 42% of the respondents declared that they use online platforms and marketplaces to sell their products or services.[2] This survey also indicates that 82% of the respondents rely on search engines to promote and sell their products or services. In short, online platforms play a key role in the growth of the economy and help the digital transformation of small businesses. READ MORE

First Person Extradited From Europe to the United States for Criminal Antitrust Charges—Continued

Can Germany extradite an EU national to the United States for criminal prosecution when Germany’s own nationals are protected from extradition? This question has been put to the European Court of Justice, and the court’s advisor, Advocate General Yves Bot, has said “yes”. READ MORE

Gun-Jumping Continues To Be Serious Infringement in EU

Like many other merger control regimes, the EU merger control regulation (Regulation No. 139/2004, hereinafter “EUMR”) imposes certain obligations on parties to mergers and acquisitions that come under the jurisdiction of the European Commission. In particular, a transaction must be notified to the Commission prior to its implementation, and the parties must not implement the transaction until it has been cleared by the Commission. Failure to comply with the notification or the “standstill” obligations may result in a fine of up to 10% of the worldwide group turnover for each party. READ MORE

Big Data: German Antitrust Decision Regarding Facebook Expected in 2017

As more internet users entrust their personal data to operators of websites, operators’ use of this “Big Data” has become a growing concern. As a result, government agencies around the world are grappling with whether and how to regulate “Big Data” in the context of social networking websites.  This includes some competition authorities that are trying to expand their purview by using competition laws to regulate “Big Data” in the context of social media.  The possibility that competition authorities around the world may try to become super regulators of “Big Data” should be of concern to all operators of social networking websites.

A case in point is the German competition authority (FCO), which in March 2016 initiated proceedings against one of the most popular social networking sites – Facebook – purportedly based on a concern that it may have infringed data protection rules. Since the case is the first of its kind in Europe, the outcome – which is expected before the end of the year – is awaited with great interest.

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UK High Court of Justice Issues an Injunction Prohibiting Huawei from Selling Wireless Telecommunications Products in Britain Due to its Failure to Enter Into a Worldwide Patent License

Orrick antitrust practice team attorneys Matthew G. Rose, Jay Jurata and Emily Luken recently published an article in the e-Competitions Bulletin August 2017 discussing the implications of the UK High Court of Justice ruling that enjoins Huawei from selling wireless telecommunications products in Britain due to Huawei’s failure to enter into a patent license for Unwired Planet’s worldwide portfolio of standard-essential patents (SEPs), even though Huawei was willing to enter into a license for Unwired Planet’s United Kingdom (UK) SEPs.

The article examines the potential competitive harms that would result from a regime in which licensees are required to take worldwide SEP licenses.

The Chips Are Down: Intel’s Victory in the European Court of Justice Has Implications on How Anticompetitive Conduct Is Analysed in EU Antitrust Cases

 

On 6 September 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) handed down its long-awaited ruling in Intel v Commission (the “Ruling”).[1] The Ruling, which sets aside the appealed judgment of the EU General Court and orders the case to be re-examined for failing to consider the effects of anticompetitive conduct on competition, has potentially broad implications for how the European Commission (“Commission”) conducts its analysis and reasons its decisions in ongoing and future EU antitrust investigations.

Key Takeaways

  • The Ruling signals a return of “effects-based” analysis in EU antitrust cases and a move away from a “form-based” approach where certain conduct is deemed per se illegal.
  • The Ruling not only clarifies how the General Court should assess appeals of Commission decisions, but is likely to have implications for how the Commission approaches its analysis and reasons its decisions in EU antitrust cases going forward. In particular, the burden of proving that specific conduct or practices have anticompetitive effects is placed firmly with the Commission.
  • Intel’s victory may embolden other entities facing similar allegations to defend their corners more aggressively.
  • This is not the end of the road. It cannot be ruled out that the General Court, when it re-examines the case and applies the appropriate analysis, comes to the same ultimate conclusions and upholds the Commission’s original fine.

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European Competition Authorities Crack Down on Violations of Merger Control Procedural Rules

Is a wind of change blowing through the European merger control enforcement landscape?

The response is yes, certainly.

Very recent cases or investigations launched by the European Commission alleging potential violations of merger control procedural rules by notifying parties have sent a clear signal to companies: you’d now better think twice before breaking the merger control procedural rules.

It is even truer when one considers that this may well be a trend throughout Europe. These cases have echoed back to recent similar cases, pending or closed, at the member state level (the Altice case in France, the CEE Holding Group limited/ Olympic International Holdings Limited case in Hungary, the AB Kauno Grudai / AB Vievio Paukstynas case in Lithuania, and a very recent bakery case in Slovakia). READ MORE

Janssen Cilag S.A.S v. France: Approval of Broad and Indiscriminate Seizures by the European Court of Human Rights

European Court of Human Rights Logo Janssen Cilag S.A.S v. France: Approval of Broad and Indiscriminate Seizures by the European Court of Human Rights

On April 13, 2017 in Janssen Cilag S.A.S v. France,[1] the European Court of Human Rights (the “Court”) confirmed the validity of search and seizure operations carried out by the French Competition Authority at Janssen Cilag’s company premises. In keeping with its findings in Vinci Construction and GTM Génie Civile et Services v. France, [2] the Court considered that the broad and indiscriminate seizure by the FCA amounted to interference with the rights guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (the “Convention”), but that the interference was while pursuing a legitimate aim and therefore “in accordance with the law.”

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New Merger Filing Thresholds In Germany and Austria

Merger Acquisition Antitrust

Merger notification obligations are changing in Germany and Austria, as new alternative jurisdictional thresholds based on the “transaction value” are being introduced into the respective national regimes, previously solely based on turnover thresholds.

Germany

In Germany, the introduction of a new set of alternative thresholds was approved by both chambers of Parliament and will enter into force upon the (imminent) signature by the Federal President.

Even though the new thresholds are being introduced with a view to better control acquisitions of Internet startups, they apply regardless of the economic sector to any high-valued acquisition of undertakings that have a “significant” presence in Germany. READ MORE

New Anonymous Whistle-Blower Tool Launched By The European Commission

Businessman in black suit hiding face behind sign whistle blower New Anonymous Whistle-Blower Tool Launched By The European Commission

On March 16, 2017, the European Commission (“EC”) introduced a new tool to make it easier for individuals to alert the EC about competition law violations, mainly secret cartels, while maintaining the anonymity of the whistle-blowers.

The EC presented the objectives of the new tool (I) and how it works (II); this tool, which is not new in Europe, leaves several questions unanswered (III).

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Changes to the UK’s Regime for Antitrust Damages Actions to Implement the EU Damages Directive

EU and UK Flags with gavelChanges to the UK’s Regime for Antitrust Damages Actions

Regulations implementing EU Directive 2014/104 (the “Damages Directive”) have come into force in the UK. The Claims in respect of Loss or Damage arising from Competition Infringements (Competition Act 1998 and Other Enactments (Amendment)) Regulations 2017 (SI 2017/385) (the “Regulations”) entered into force on 9 March 2017 and were published on 14 March 2017. The Regulations amend the UK Competition Act 1998 by adding a new section 47F and new Schedule 8A.

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Can a Foreign Defendant’s Conduct Satisfy the FTAIA But Not the Due Process Clause?

Global Trade, word cloud concept on white background Can a Foreign Defendant’s Conduct Satisfy the FTAIA But Not the Due Process Clause

In Sullivan v. Barclays PLC,[1] Judge P. Kevin Castel, of the Southern District of New York, raised an interesting point regarding the relationship between the viability of antitrust claims subject to the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvement Act (FTAIA) and constitutional requirements for personal jurisdiction: The FTAIA “arguably may apply a less-exacting standard than the due process threshold to exercise personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.”[2]  In other words, even though the standard for the FTAIA might be met to allow an antitrust claim to proceed against a foreign defendant, the court nonetheless might not be able to assert personal jurisdiction.  The question whether the FTAIA should be read more strictly than has been the case to conform to due process requirements, or that foreign defendants should be more diligent in challenging personal jurisdiction, are interesting ones that warrant further analysis.

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General Court Annuls 2013 EU Veto on the TNT Acquisition by UPS

Logistics and transportation circular illustration - vector colorful logistic sign General Court Annuls 2013 EU Veto on the TNT Acquisition by UPS

For the first time in over a decade, the General Court of the European Union has annulled a European Commission (EC or Commission) decision to block a deal. This is a rare setback for the EC’s merger control program.

The ruling overturns a January 2013 move by the EC to stop global package delivery company, United Parcel Service (UPS), from acquiring a rival, TNT Holdings. The EC’s decision turned on its finding that the transaction would have restricted competition in 15 Member States regarding express delivery of small packages to other European countries. The Commission argued that the transaction would remove one of the four top players in Europe, leaving DHL as the only remaining significant competitor and FedEx as a distant third, with a European network lacking the density and scale to exert a meaningful competitive constraint on a combined UPS/TNT.

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Fine in Phosphates Cartel Case Confirms Need to Carefully Evaluate European Commission Settlement Proposals

Businessman's hands exchanging euro on blue background, closeup shot Fine in Phosphates Cartel Case Confirms Need to Carefully Evaluate European Commission Settlement Proposals

On January 12, 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) dismissed Roullier group’s appeal and thereby confirmed a fine of €59,850,000 imposed by the European Commission (“EC”) in the phosphates cartel case.[1] This blog post summarizes the decision and discusses the CJEU’s reasoning, which provides valuable guidance to a firm in a cartel investigation that is evaluating a settlement proposal from the EC. In particular, the firm must weigh the fact that, pursuant to the CJEU’s decision, the EC may ultimately impose fines greater than those it proposed in a rejected settlement offer, even if it determines that the firm’s cartel participation was significantly less than it thought at the time of settlement discussions.

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DOJ and FTC Stand Their Ground on Comity Policy Despite Second Circuit’s Decision in Vitamin C Case

International Flags on poles DOJ and FTC Stand Their Ground on Comity Policy Despite 2d Circuit’s Decision in Vitamin C Case

Last September, we discussed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s opinion in In re Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation vacating a $147 million judgment against Chinese vitamin C manufacturers based on the doctrine of international comity.  That case stemmed from allegations that the defendants illegally fixed the price and output levels of vitamin C that they exported to the United States.  In reversing the district court’s decision to deny the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Second Circuit held that the district court should have deferred to the Chinese government’s explanation that Chinese law compelled the defendants to coordinate the price and output of vitamin C.

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