These are the words of Europe’s chief antitrust enforcer, Margrethe Vestager, introducing the Commission’s public hearing on October 6, 2016, on its preliminary findings of the e-commerce sector inquiry. The promise of e-commerce alluded to by the Commissioner for Competition means quite simply a wider choice of goods available for purchase online, at lower prices across the EU as well as cross-border access to digital content for consumers in the EU. The major concern for the Commission is that e-commerce still takes place nationally within the EU and not on a cross-border basis across the 28 Member States, because of contractual barriers erected by companies.
An appeal court in Frankfurt has asked the European Court of Justice to clarify the application of the competition rules to online sales. The Frankfurt court made its request in the context of a dispute between a leader in beauty products with an extensive portfolio of beauty brands and its German distributor. The supplier of beauty products operates a selective distribution system in Germany to manage how its products are sold and has taken its distributor to court for selling products over online platforms, such as Amazon.com and eBay. The Frankfurt court is seeking guidance from the European Court of Justice on whether a supplier can prohibit its distributor from selling its goods on online marketplaces, regardless of whether the distributor has met the criteria of the selective distribution system. This question is highly topical in the EU and particularly in Germany, where the German competition authority and the courts have recently taken divergent positions. The German competition authority has issued rulings prohibiting suppliers of branded goods from restricting internet sales by retailers and, in particular, over third party platforms such as eBay and Amazon.com. These rulings have been in contradiction with the stance taken by the German courts, such as the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt, which recently decided that a branded manufacturer acted lawfully when banning its authorized retailers within its selective distribution system from selling its products on online marketplaces. According to the Higher Regional Court, a manufacturer has a legitimate interest in ensuring that its branded products are perceived as high-quality products sold with the requisite level of sales advice and a manufacturer is, therefore, free in principle to decide under which conditions its products are sold, provided that these conditions are necessary to meet its quality standards. It is expected that the European Court of Justice will issue its ruling on this issue within the next 15 months or so.