Sights on Online Search Advertising: FTC Finds Practices by 1-800 Contacts to Unlawfully Harm Competition and Restrict the Availability of Truthful Advertising to Consumers

Last month in In the Matter of 1-800 Contacts, Inc., the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) provided insight into the circumstances under which retail price competition may take place in the 21st century internet economy. In the Opinion authored by Chairman Joseph J. Simons (“Commission’s Opinion”) the Commission decided that 1-800 Contacts, the country’s largest online retailer of contact lenses, unlawfully entered into anticompetitive agreements with 14 rival online sellers (“Agreements”). The Agreements, which, in most cases were trademark litigation settlements, required the parties, when bidding as part of search engine advertising auctions, to take measures ensuring their advertisements do not appear in response to searches for the other party’s trademark terms. According to the Commission’s Opinion, approved 3-1-1, the “decision will affect not only the price that consumers pay for some contact lenses but also the very manner in which substantial parts of price competition will occur throughout consumer markets today and tomorrow.” This week, 1-800 Contacts filed an application with the FTC for a partial stay pending review by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

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UK Government and CMA research whether online customers are targeted through personalised pricing

On 4 November 2018, the UK government and the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) issued a press release confirming that they will examine the practices of retailers that target online consumers and charge them different prices for the same product through personalised pricing.  Their research will cover a range of products sold online “such as holidays, cars and household goods”.  The announcement is unsurprisingly silent as to whether legislative changes or changes to the CMA’s enforcement policy will result.

This is the latest in a line of UK government and CMA initiatives regarding personalised pricing.  On 31 October 2018, the Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) announced an investigation into personalised pricing for motor and home insurance policies after finding that insurance companies were price discriminating between customers; and on 8 October 2018, the CMA published a Working Paper on the ‘use of pricing algorithms to facilitate collusion and personalised pricing’ (see our recent Covington Competition Blog post).

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A refusal to make a ‘Collective Proceedings Order’ in England can be appealed

In its 13 November 2018 judgment in Merricks v MasterCard, the English Court of Appeal (the CA) determined that a refusal by the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) to grant a Collective Proceedings Order (CPO) can be appealed to the Court of Appeal.

A CPO is the order by which the CAT authorises a class representative to act as such in the collective proceedings action and sets out certain basic details, such as the parties’ names, the definition of the class (and any sub-class), the common issues to be determined and the remedy sought. Without a CPO the collective action cannot proceed.

The CA concluded that the refusal of a CPO is likely to prevent individual members of the represented class who have suffered loss from obtaining any compensation. Consequently, it concluded that in substance, a refusal of a CPO is a decision as to the award of damages within the meaning of the Competition Act 1998 (CA98), which can, consequently, be appealed to the Court of Appeal.

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Advanced Competition Law Conference Brussels – Joint Presentation on Recent EU Cartel Enforcement

On 20 November, Johan Ysewyn and Maria Jaspers (DG COMP) presented the highlights of recent EU cartel enforcement in their annual presentation at the Advanced EU Competition Law Conference in Brussels.  Their presentation covered their now-traditional three pillars: enforcement, policy and court review. Continue Reading

Land agreements rise up the CMA’s agenda

In October, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) imposed a fine of 1.6 million GBP for a land agreement which it found to infringe competition law. This is the first time that the CMA has taken enforcement action and issued a fine in relation to a land agreement, despite such agreements having been covered by the Chapter 1 prohibition (the UK equivalent of Article 101 TFEU) since 2011. The imposition of the fine, together with increased activity by the CMA in this sector, suggests that undertakings with land agreements should carefully check their compliance with competition law. Whatever “grace to adapt” has been afforded to businesses by the CMA since the change in the law has clearly come to an end.

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The CMA’s Paper on Pricing Algorithms, Collusion and Personalised Pricing

On 8 October 2018, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) published a Working Paper on the ‘use of pricing algorithms to facilitate collusion and personalized pricing’ (the “Paper”). It follows a number of other initiatives from competition authorities regarding algorithms, including the recent German Monopolies Commission’s proposals regarding pricing algorithms, which was the subject of a Covington Competition Blog post. The CMA’s analysis reflects input from algorithm providers, other competition authorities, and the results of the CMA’s findings from pilot tests. The Paper is economic rather than legal in focus, and assesses the extent to which various algorithm models have the potential to affect competition.

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The European Commission finds no illegal State aid was provided by Luxembourg’s non-taxation of McDonald’s

On 19 September 2018, the European Commission (“Commission”) issued a press release declaring that Luxembourg did not provide illegal State aid to McDonald’s with regards to two tax rulings that resulted in double non-taxation of franchise profits in Luxembourg. The Commission’s three-year-long in-depth investigation established that Luxembourg had merely acted in compliance with its national tax laws and that the double non-taxation was the result of a mismatch between Luxembourg and US tax law, as opposed to a more favourable treatment given to McDonald’s compared to other companies in Luxembourg.

The Commission’s initial concerns

In December 2015, the Commission launched an investigation into McDonald’s Europe Franchising (“MEF”), a EU subsidiary of the US-based McDonald’s Corporation. At issue were two tax rulings regarding MEF, a tax resident of Luxembourg with one Swiss branch and one US branch, that received franchisee royalties from outlets in Europe, Ukraine and Russia. Continue Reading

IoT Update: BEREC launches public consultation on the ‘Data Economy’

On the 10th October 2018, BEREC (the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) launched its public consultation on the ‘Data Economy’. This comes at a time when different regulators are increasingly discussing the importance of big data, including the opportunities and risks that it brings about, how these may evolve, and how (and increasingly who should take the responsibility) to regulate. While the data protection and competition authorities have so far been most vocal in this deepening regulatory debate, the opening of this consultation represents a clear and decisive move by European telecom regulators to ‘throw their hat’ into the ring and get included in the discussion – and potentially future regulation – of Europe’s data economy.

All interested stakeholders, including public organisations, industry actors, consumers, associations, academics, financial advisers, and other stakeholders with expertise or interest in the data economy are strongly encouraged to have their say. BEREC’s consultation video can be accessed here, and the consultation is open until 21 November 2018.

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