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EU Commissioner Warns Companies of Potentially Unlawful Use of Pricing Algorithms

On 16 March 2017, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager gave a speech on algorithms and competition at the Bundeskartellamt's 18th Conference on Competition in Berlin, during which she discussed the potentially anti-competitive use of pricing algorithms.

The speech, which follows the opening of an investigation involving the use of pricing software by the Commission earlier this year, highlights the competition law risks associated with the use of pricing algorithms and further signals to businesses that online pricing practices are at the crosshairs of competition authorities across the EU.

Price monitoring algorithms and competition law

Algorithms are commonly applied in businesses such as airline tickets, hotel booking and online retail, to determine what price best matches the demand and the offers of competitors. Algorithms are also used in price monitoring software programmes, designed to track competitor or customer prices, products, promotions and alert businesses in real time.

During her speech the Commissioner commented that the issue of automated systems that monitor, and even adjust, prices automatically through the use of algorithms is increasingly attracting the attention of competition authorities and made the following key points:

  • Widespread use of pricing algorithms among businesses
    The Commission’s e-commerce sector inquiry report, which was published in December 2016, revealed that the use of pricing software is widespread among retailers, showing that two thirds of the retailers use automatic systems to track their competitors’ prices, while some of them use that software to also adjust prices automatically (read our update here).

  • Facilitating price-fixing or retail price maintenance
    Price-monitoring software could be used to facilitate price-fixing or retail price maintenance. To this end, the Commissioner noted: “there is also the issue that manufacturers that want their retailers to stick to minimum retail prices need a way to deal with discount stores that undercut those prices. With monitoring algorithms, manufacturers can easily spot when that is happening.”

  • Collusion through algorithms
    Algorithms can be designed to facilitate collusion and businesses may be deemed to be acting in collusion depending on how their algorithms are designed to operate. “There are many ways that collusion can happen, and some of them are well within the capacity of automated systems“, the Commissioner noted.

  • The Commission will scrutinise the online space
    Although the Commission’s cases have traditionally dealt with agreements that were concluded by individuals, this does not mean that the Commission will not investigate automated systems that collude. The Commissioner emphasised that competition enforcers across the EU are equipped to deal with anti-competitive practices in the online world and they will make sure that companies do not: “escape responsibility for collusion by hiding behind a computer program“.

  • More effective cartels
    Algorithms in automated systems could lead to more effective and stable cartels. Historically cartels have faced collapse as their members would start cheating each other by deviating from the agreed inflated prices. By monitoring the prices of the cartel members, algorithms can easily spot such cheating and ultimately remove incentives to deviate from the cartelised prices.

Commissioner Vestager’s speech comes amidst increased enforcement into online practices and mirrors the concerns and recent enforcement activity by national competition authorities.  In August 2016, the UK Competition and Markets Authority issued an infringement decision against two online sellers of poster and frames for using automated re-pricing software to implement their price-fixing agreement. The German and French competition authorities published a joint paper last year on data and competition, which considered the potential competition law concerns raised by algorithms.

At EU level, Thomas Kramler, the Commission official leading the e-commerce sector inquiry, had noted last year that the use of software could be a serious potential concern for antitrust authorities. Earlier this year, the Commission launched a formal investigation examining whether four companies breached EU competition law by limiting the ability of retailers to set their own prices for consumer electronics. At the heart of the Commission's concerns in this case is that the use of price-monitoring software facilitated the implementation of the alleged resale price maintenance (read our update on this case here).

In light of these developments, it is increasingly important for businesses to review their use of price-monitoring tools and ensure that their online practices are compliant with EU competition law. It is also of critical importance for companies to receive competition law advice on how to minimise competition law risks relating to the use of algorithms and automated pricing systems.

Copyright 2020 K & L GatesNational Law Review, Volume VII, Number 90


About this Author

Scott S. Megregian, Global Antitrust, Competition and Trade Regulation Attorney, KL Gates Law firm

Scott Megregian is Co-Practice Group Coordinator of the firm’s global Antitrust, Competition and Trade Regulation practice group and a partner in the firm’s London and Brussels offices. He is a Competition and Regulatory partner and has more than 25 years of antitrust and competition experience, drawn from both sides of the Atlantic and spans transactional, dispute resolution, government investigation, regulatory and counselling engagements. Scott has extensive experience advising clients in the mining and metals, energy, chemicals, defence, sports and intellectual...

Neil A. Baylis, KL Gates, Telecom Industry Lawyer, Trade Regulation Attorney

Neil is a partner in the Competition and Trade Regulation, Travel and Leisure, and Telecom, Media and Technology practice groups. He has experience in advising clients on all aspects of EU and UK commercial and competition law. His work covers drafting and advising on commercial agreements; merger control; bringing and defending competition law based complaints before the regulators; drafting and implementing compliance programs; advising on regulatory issues under EU laws, advising on consumer law issues; and advising on litigating competition law issues before the...

Francesco Carloni, KL Gates, EU merger control attorney, dominant position abuse lawyer

Francesco Carloni is a partner in the firm’s Brussels and Milan offices where he is a member of the antitrust, competition & trade regulation practice group.

As a European and Italian competition law practitioner, Mr. Carloni’s experience primarily lies in the field of merger control, , restrictive practices and agreements, e-commerce, abuse of dominant position, EU sector inquiries, public consultations, and state aid. He offers compliance training and develops customized compliance programs adapted to clients' specific risk profiles. He...

Dr. Annette Mutschler-Siebert, M. Jur. (Oxon), Public Procurement Attorney, EU Antitrust Lawyer, KL Gates Law firm

Dr. Annette Mutschler-Siebert is a partner in the firm’s Berlin office. She advises clients on public procurement law as well as European and competition law. She is particularly experienced in advising clients on the design of and participation in complex procurement procedures, privatization projects and public private partnerships for both the bidding and the contracting party.

Dr. Annette Mutschler-Siebert also advises clients on issues relating to antitrust law, in particular the structuring of distribution networks, the structuring of...