Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said: "E-commerce has become important for consumers and it has significant impact on the business and strategies of companies. Businesses should have the freedom to determine their sales strategies online. At the same time, antitrust authorities must ensure that they do not engage in anti-competitive business practices. These practices can prevent European consumers from reaping the full benefits of e-commerce in terms of greater choice and lower prices."
The Commission launched the e-commerce sector inquiry in May 2015 in the context of its Digital Single Market strategy. One of the main parts of the Digital Single Market strategy is to ensure better access for consumers and businesses to goods and services. The sector inquiry complements the Commission's legislative proposals in this regard. The objective of the sector inquiry is to allow the Commission to identify possible competition concerns in European e-commerce markets. During the inquiry, the Commission has gathered evidence from nearly 1 800 companies operating in e-commerce of consumer goods and digital content and has analysed around 8 000 distribution contracts. The Preliminary Report published today presents the Commission's initial findings regarding these issues.
The Report identifies business practices that may raise competition concerns. The Commission may open case specific investigations to ensure compliance with EU rules on restrictive business practices and abuse of dominant market positions.
The Preliminary Report confirms the growing significance of e-commerce. The report indicates that more than half of EU adults have ordered consumer goods or services online in 2015, with the figure rising to more than eight in ten people in some Member States. E-commerce is an important driver of price transparency and price competition,increasing consumers' choice and their ability to find the best deals. This transparency also works on the supply side: the report finds, for instance, that over half of retailers track competitors' prices and the vast majority respond to competitors' price changes.
The Preliminary Report also identifies certain business practices that may limit this online competition. The report should be a reason for companies to review their current distribution contracts and bring them in line with EU competition rules if they are not.
Online sale of consumer goods
Manufacturers have responded to the growth of e-commerce by adopting a number of practices in order to better control the distribution of their products and the positioning of their brands. Selective distribution systems in which the products can only be sold by pre-selected authorized sellers are used more widely and manufacturers increasingly sell their products online directly to consumers.
Manufacturers also increasingly use contractual sales restrictions in their distribution agreements. The report finds that:
- over two in five retailers face some form of price recommendation or price restriction from manufacturers;
- almost one in five retailers are contractually restricted from selling on online marketplaces;
- almost one in ten retailers are contractually restricted from submitting offers to price comparison web sites;
- over one in ten retailers report that their suppliers impose contractual restrictions on cross-border sales.
All these types of contractual sales restrictions may, under certain circumstances, make cross-border shopping or online shopping in general more difficult and ultimately harm consumers by preventing them from benefiting from greater choice and lower prices in e-commerce.
The availability of licences from the holders of copyrights in content is essential for digital content providers and a key determinant of competition in the market.
The report finds that copyright licensing agreements are complex and often exclusive. The agreements foresee what territories, technologies and release windows digital content providers can use.
In March 2016, the Commission published its initial findings on geo-blocking, which found that the practice was wide spread in e-commerce throughout the EU especially for digital content. More than 60% of the licence agreements submitted by rights holders are limited to the territory of a single Member State. Almost 60% of responding digital content providers have contractually agreed with right holders to geo-block.
If geo-blocking is the result of agreements between suppliers and distributors it may restrict competition in the Single Market in breach of EU antitrust rules. Any competition enforcement measure against geo-blocking would have to be based on a case-by-case assessment, which would also include an analysis of potential justifications for restrictions that have been identified.
The Preliminary Report is now open to public consultation for a period of two months. Stakeholders are invited to comment on the findings of the sector inquiry, submit additional information and raise further issues.
The Commission expects to publish the Final Report in the first quarter of 2017.