Ebay calls on EU to probe sales curbs

Ebay, the online auctioneer, has asked the European Union's antitrust chief to investigate companies that prevent retailers or sellers from offering their goods on Ebay or other online commerce platforms.

Tod Cohen, Ebay deputy general counsel, said he had raised concerns with Neelie Kroes over distributors of perfumes in France, sports goods in Spain, schoolbags in Germany and pushchairs in Britain, among others.

"We think there may be a number of anti-competitive and abusive distribution agreements that are prohibiting sellers in the EU from offering goods online. They are manipulating and controlling the markets beyond EU market rules," he said.

The company has been locked in legal battles over distribution policies with a number of large brand manufacturers - from Tiffany in the US to Louis Vuitton in France - although they, in turn, have complained about online sales of counterfeit items. Results in national courts have been mixed.

Ebay's call came after Ms Kroes said she would consider an investigation into whether manufacturers and service providers were using illegal practices to prevent online sales.

"There are a number of practices which are being used to restrict cross-border sales which I think require a closer look," she said.

"I intend to look very carefully at these practices, and any others brought to our attention," the commissioner said, as she called for views to be submitted.

The investigation is not formal at this stage, but a preliminary exercise to explore whether there are issues that need to be addressed. But Ms Kroes made clear she was ready to take further action if required.

"Consumers often find that the products they are looking for are not available to them ... If this is because competition rules are not clear enough, I will clarify them. If it is because the competition rules are not up to date, I will update them.

"And of course, if this is because the competition rules are not being respected, consumers and companies should know I will enforce them" she said.

Ms Kroes was speaking at the end of a high-level roundtable discussion by online commerce participants including Apple's Steve Jobs, LVMH's Bernard Arnault, John Donahue, chief executive of Ebay, Roger Faxon from EMI, and Sir Mick Jagger. The roundtable will publish a short report later this year, and invite further comments from third parties.

Brussels sees online commerce as a means of driving a borderless market and eroding local competition barriers.

According to recent studies, total e-commerce sales in the EU could reach 5-10 per cent of total sales by 2010. Ebay claims consumers in the UK, Germany and France can achieve price savings of about 17 per cent for a range of new products by buying online.

By Nikki Tate

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