European Union regulators brought antitrust charges against Amazon on Tuesday, saying the online retail giant broke competition laws by unfairly using its size and access to data to harm smaller merchants who rely on the company to reach customers.
The European Commission, the executive branch of the 27-nation bloc, said Amazon had abused its dual role as both a retail store used by scores of vendors, and a merchant that sells its own competing goods on the platform. The authorities accused Amazon of harvesting nonpublic data from sellers who use its marketplace to spot popular products, then copy and sell them, often at a lower price.
“We must ensure that dual role platforms with market power, such as Amazon, do not distort competition,” Margrethe Vestager, the commission’s vice president for digital issues, said in a statement. “Data on the activity of third party sellers should not be used to the benefit of Amazon when it act as a competitor to these sellers.”
The case, which has been expected for months, is the latest front in a trans-Atlantic regulatory push against Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google as the authorities in the United States and Europe take a more skeptical view of their business practices and dominance of the digital economy. Last month, the Justice Department brought antitrust charges against Google, and Apple and Facebook are also facing investigations in both Washington and Brussels.
Many in Europe will be watching to see how the Amazon announcement is received by the incoming administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is expected to pursue policies that limit the industry’s power. The Trump administration has criticised Vestager for aiming at American companies like Apple, even as it initiated its own investigations of the industry.
In the Amazon case, the announcement on Tuesday is still preliminary and is just one part of the regulatory process. Amazon now has a chance to respond to the charges. It can take many months, or even years, before a fine and other penalties are announced. The commission also could reach a settlement with Amazon, or the case could be dropped.
The European Commission said it has also started a parallel investigation of Amazon policies around its “buy box,” an important piece of real estate on Amazon’s website that makes it easy for consumers to quickly click to make a purchase. The commission is studying whether Amazon gives preferential treatment for the buy box to its own products and those of other sellers that pay to use Amazon’s logistics services. Amazon denied any wrongdoing and said it supports thousands of businesses in Europe.
In Brussels, Amazon has been gearing up for a legal fight. It has hired a team of lawyers and economists, including several who in the past were encouraging tougher enforcement against Google and Microsoft.
©2020 The New York Times