E-commerce companies face EU antitrust probe

A broad probe into Europe's e-commerce sector will show whether companies are restricting cross-border purchases

The European Commission plans a competition inquiry into cross-border trading by companies such as Amazon.com.

The inquiry, proposed by Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager on Thursday, will focus on possible restrictions on cross-border purchases, by which companies prevent people from buying goods in other European Union countries. One of the founding principles of the EU is the free movement of goods.

Technical barriers such as geoblocking as well as distribution contracts hampering the cross border sale of goods and digital content will be a primary focus of the inquiry, Vestager said in a speech delivered in Berlin on Thursday. She plans to send questionnaires to a large number of firms in every EU country, including merchants of online goods, companies running online market places and price comparison sites, broadcasters, manufacturers and content rights holders.

The proposal for an inquiry is also closely linked to plans for an overall digital strategy in the EU, outlined by the Commission on Wednesday. To unite Europe as a digital single market, the Commission wants to abolish geoblocking and simplify cross-border shopping rules.

"Several Commission departments are working on the Digital Single Market at the moment. Understanding and facilitating cross-border online commerce is an important part of the contribution of the competition department," Vestager said.

She will propose the inquiry to the Commission in May and if everything goes to plan preliminary findings could be published online in mid-2016. If the Commission has specific competition concerns after the inquiry, it could open antitrust investigations to ensure compliance with EU rules on restrictive business practices and abuse of dominant market positions.

Online electronics retailers are already being investigated by the Commission for possible anticompetitive agreements, though that antitrust investigation is independent from the sector inquiry proposal, a Commission official said.

Earlier this month, Commission antitrust officials conducted unannounced raids at suspected companies, following raids in December 2013 which involved Samsung Electronics, Philips and electronics retailer Media-Saturn, among other companies.

This time though, Samsung and Philips were not among the raided companies, staff reached at those companies said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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