On 10 November 2020, the European Commission announced that it has sent a statement of objections to Amazon as part of its investigation into whether Amazon’s use of sensitive data from independent retailers who sell on its marketplace is in breach of Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The Commission has also opened a formal investigation into Amazon’s allegedly discriminatory business practices.

What data is amazon collecting?

Amazon has a dual role as a platform:

  • It provides a marketplace where independent sellers can sell products directly to consumers. Amazon is the most important or dominant marketplace in many European countries.
  • It sells products as a retailer on the same marketplace, in competition with those sellers.

As a marketplace service provider, Amazon has access to non-public business data of third party sellers. This data relates to matters such as the number of ordered and shipped units of products, the sellers’ revenues on the marketplace, the number of visits to sellers’ offers, data relating to shipping, to sellers’ past performance, and other consumer claims on products, including the activated guarantees.

Investigation into use of independent sellers’ data

In July 2019, the Commission announced that it had opened a formal investigation to examine whether Amazon’s use of competitively sensitive information about marketplace sellers, their products and transactions on the Amazon marketplace constitutes anti-competitive agreements or practices in breach of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and/or an abuse of a dominant position in breach of Article 102 of the TFEU.

Statement of objections to Amazon

The Commission has now sent a statement of objections to Amazon alleging that Amazon has breached Article 102 of the TFEU by abusing its dominant position as a marketplace service provider in Germany and France. Having analysed a data sample covering over 80 million transactions and around 100 million product listings on Amazon’s European marketplaces, the Commission is alleging in its statement of objections to Amazon that:

  • Very large quantities of non-public seller data are available to employees of Amazon’s retail business and feed into automated systems. Granular, real-time business data relating to third party sellers’ listings and transactions on the Amazon platform is systematically feed into the algorithms of Amazon’s retail business, which aggregates the data and uses it to calibrate Amazon’s retail offers and strategic business decisions (such as which new products to launch, the price of each individual offer, the management of inventories, and the choice of the best supplier for a product).
  • This acts to the detriment of other marketplace sellers as, for example, Amazon can use this data to focus its offers in the best-selling products across product categories and to adjust its offers in light of the non-public data of competing sellers.
  • The use of non-public marketplace seller data, therefore, allows Amazon to avoid the normal risks of retail competition and to leverage its dominance in the market for the provision of marketplace services in France and Germany, which are the biggest markets for Amazon in the EU.

The Commission’s concerns are not only about the insights Amazon Retail has into the sensitive business data of one particular seller, but rather about the insights that Amazon Retail has about the accumulated business data of more than 800,000 active sellers in the EU, covering more than a billion different products. Amazon is able to aggregate and combine individual seller data in real time, and to draw precise, targeted conclusions from these data.

The Commission has, therefore, come to the preliminary conclusion that the use of these data allows Amazon to focus on the sale of the best-selling products. This marginalises third party sellers and limits their ability to grow. Amazon now has the opportunity to examine the documents in the Commission’s investigation file, reply in writing to the allegations in the statement of objections and request an oral hearing to present its comments on the case.

Investigation into Amazon practices regarding the “Buy Box” and Prime label

The Commission states that, as a result of looking into Amazon’s use of data, it identified concerns that Amazon’s business practices might artificially favour its own retail offers and offers of marketplace sellers that use Amazon’s logistics and delivery services. It has, therefore, now formally initiated proceedings in a separate investigation to examine whether these business practices breach Article 102 of the TFEU.

Problems with digital platforms

In announcing these developments, EU Commission Vice-President Vestager commented that:

“We must ensure that dual role platforms with market power, such as Amazon, do not distort competition. Data on the activity of third party sellers should not be used to the benefit of Amazon when it acts as a competitor to these sellers. The conditions of competition on the Amazon platform must also be fair. Its rules should not artificially favour Amazon’s own retail offers or advantage the offers of retailers using Amazon’s logistics and delivery services. With e-commerce booming, and Amazon being the leading e-commerce platform, a fair and undistorted access to consumers online is important for all sellers.”

The report prepared for the Commission by three special advisers on “Competition Policy for the digital era” highlighted possible competition issues in relation to digital platforms. As part of the Digital Services Act package, the Commission is now considering the introduction of ex ante regulation for “gatekeeper” platforms, and consulted on issues related to this in June 2020

Big data regulation

It remains to be seen how these EC investigations will play out and whether the same principles can be applied to smaller online platforms. UK regulators also appear to be ramping up their interest in the overlap between competition law and digital business. Chief Executive of the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), Andrea Coscelli, noted last month that the CMA is increasingly focused on “scrutinising how digital businesses use algorithms and how this could negatively impact competition and consumers” and “will be considering how requirements for auditability and explainability of algorithms might work in practice”.

If you have any questions on the EC’s statement of objections to Amazon, data protection law or on any of the issues raised in this article please get in touch with one of our data protection lawyers.