On 26 March 2015, the EU Commissioner in charge of competition policy, Margrethe Vestager, announced plans to inquiry into the e-commerce sector. The possibility of conducting sector inquiries is provided for in Art. 12 of Council Regulation 17/62 which allows the commission to conduct a general investigation into an economic sector “[i]f in any sector of the economy the trend of trade between Member States, price movements, inflexibility of prices or other circumstances suggest that in the economic sector concerned competition is being restricted or distorted within the common market”.
The proposed sector inquiry comes after the Commission’s believes that the e-commerce market is not working as well as it should, and that breaches of competition law might be a contributory factor. While the Commission’s primary focus would be on restrictive contractual provisions, it is also expected to look at technical measures, such as “geo-blocking”, preventing customers from accessing websites on the basis of their nationality, residence or credit-card details.
If approved, questionnaires would be sent to a broad range of market players, including content rights holders, broadcasters, manufacturers, online merchants and marketplace operators. The information gathered in this way is supposed to help the Commission to identify and understand the existing barriers to cross-border e-commerce. It could also assist various legislative initiatives facilitating the commission’s broader agenda – a “Digital Single Market”. However, as promising as this may sound, a sector inquiry is merely a preliminary step, especially into the application of competition-law remedies.