Although more and more goods are bought online, cross-border sales are slow, which may mean that some companies are taking trade-restricting measures

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The EU is proposing to launch a competition inquiry in the e-commerce sector. More and more goods and services are traded over the internet in Europe. At the same time, cross-border online sales within the EU are growing slowly. This is partly because of language barriers, consumer preferences and differences in legislation across member states. However, some companies may be taking measures to restrict cross-border e-commerce. The sector inquiry would focus on better identifying and addressing these measures, in line with EU priorities to create a connected Digital Single Market, which is to be unveiled in May. 

Speaking at a conference in Berlin today, commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who is in charge of competition policy, stressed: “It is high time to remove remaining barriers to e-commerce, which is a vital part of a true Digital Single Market in Europe. The envisaged sector inquiry will help the European Commission to understand and tackle barriers to e-commerce to the benefit of European citizens and business.”

In 2014, about half of all EU consumers shopped online. Yet, only about 15% of them bought online from a seller based in another EU member state. This indicates that significant cross-border barriers to e-commerce still exist within the EU. For example, technical barriers, such as geo-blocking, may prevent consumers from accessing certain websites on the basis of their residence or credit card details.

Commissioner Vestager has therefore decided to propose to the College of Commissioners to launch a competition inquiry in the e-commerce sector, to contribute to the Commission’s objectives of achieving a Digital Single Market.

The sector inquiry will focus on private – and in particular contractual - barriers to cross-border e-commerce in digital content and goods. In the course of the inquiry the Commission intends to gather information from a large number of stakeholders in all member states.

Knowledge gained through the sector inquiry will not only contribute to enforcing competition law in the e-commerce sector, but also to various legislative initiatives that the Commission plans to launch to boost the Digital Single Market.

If, after analysing the results, the Commission identified specific competition concerns, it could open case investigations to ensure compliance with EU rules on restrictive business practices and abuse of dominant market positions (Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).