Distribution through digital platforms | Main novelties

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On 1 June 2022, Regulation EU n. 720/2022, i.e.: the new Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (hereinafter: “VBER”), replaced the previous version (Regulation EU n. 330/2010), expired on 31 May 2022.

The new VBER and the new vertical guidelines (hereinafter: “Guidelines”) have received the main evidence gathered during the lifetime of the previous VBER and contain some relevant provisions affecting the discipline of all B2B agreements among businesses operating at different levels of the supply chain.

In this article, we will focus on the impact of the new VBER on sales through digital platforms, listing the main novelties impacting distribution chains, including a platform for marketing products/services.

The general discipline of vertical agreements

Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”) prohibits all agreements that prevent, restrict, or distort competition within the EU market, listing the main types, e.g.: price fixing; market partitioning; limitations on production/development/investment; unfair terms, etc.

However, Article 101(3) TFEU exempts from such restrictions the agreements that contribute to improving the EU market, to be identified in a special category Regulation.

The VBER establishes the category of vertical agreements (i.e., agreements between businesses operating at different levels of the supply chain), determining which of these agreements are exempted from Article 101(1) TFEU prohibition.

In short, vertical agreements are presumed to be exempted (and therefore valid) if they do not contain so-called “hardcore restrictions” (i.e., severe restrictions of competition, such as an absolute ban on sales in a territory or the manufacturer’s determination of the distributor’s resale price) and if neither party’s market share exceeds 30%.

The exempted agreements benefit from what has been termed the “safe harbour” of the VBER. In contrast, the others will be subject to the general prohibition of Article 101(1) TFEU unless they can benefit from an individual exemption under Article 101(3) TFUE.

The innovations introduced by the new VBER to online platforms

The first relevant aspect concerns the classification of the platforms, as the European Commission excluded that the online platform generally meets the conditions to be categorized as agency agreements.

While there have never been doubts concerning platforms that operate by purchasing and reselling products (classic example: Amazon Retail), some have arisen concerning those platforms that merely promote the products of third parties without carrying out the activity of resale (classic example: Amazon Marketplace).

With this statement, the European Commission wanted to clear the field of doubt, making explicit that intermediation service providers (such as online platforms) qualify as suppliers (as opposed to commercial agents) under the VBER. This reflects the approach of Regulation (EU) 2019/1150 (“P2B Regulation”), which has, for the first time, dictated a specific discipline for digital platforms. It provided for a set of rules to create a “fair, transparent, and predictable environment” for smaller businesses and customers” and for the rationale of the Digital Markets Act, banning certain practices used by large platforms acting as “gatekeepers”.

Therefore, all contracts concluded between manufacturers and platforms (defined as ‘providers of online intermediation services’) are subject to all the restrictions imposed by the VBER. These include the price, the territories to which or the customers to whom the intermediated goods or services may be sold, or the restrictions relating to online advertising and selling.

Thus, to give an example, the operator of a platform may not impose a fixed or minimum sale price for a transaction promoted through the platform.

The second most impactful aspect concerns hybrid platforms, i.e., competing in the relevant market to sell intermediated goods or services. Amazon is the most well-known example, as it is a provider of intermediation services (“Amazon Marketplace”), and – at the same time – it distributes the products of those parties (“Amazon Retail”). We have previously explored the distinction between those 2 business models (and the consequences in terms of intellectual property infringement) here.

The new VBER explicitly does not apply to hybrid platforms. Therefore, the agreements concluded among such platforms and manufacturers are subject to the limitations of the TFEU, as such providers may have the incentive to favour their sales and the ability to influence the outcome of competition between undertakings that use their online intermediation services.

Those agreements must be assessed individually under Article 101 of the TFEU, as they do not necessarily restrict competition within the meaning of TFEU, or they may fulfil the conditions of an individual exemption under Article 101(3) TFUE.

The third very relevant aspect concerns the parity obligations (also referred to as Most Favoured Nation Clauses, or MFNs), i.e., the contract provisions in which a seller (directly or indirectly) agrees to give the buyer the best terms it makes available to any other buyer.

Indeed, platforms’ contractual terms often contain parity obligation clauses to prevent users from offering their products/services at lower prices or on better conditions on their websites or other platforms.

The new VBER deals explicitly with parity clauses, making a distinction between clauses whose purpose is to prohibit users of a platform from selling goods or services on more favourable terms through competing platforms (so-called “wide parity clauses”), and clauses that prohibit sales on more favourable terms only in respect of channels operated directly by the users (so-called “narrow parity clauses”).

Wide parity clauses do not benefit from the VBER exemption; therefore, such obligations must be assessed individually under Article 101(3) TFEU.

On the other hand, narrow parity clauses continue to benefit from the exemption already granted by the old VBER if they do not exceed the threshold of 30% of the relevant market share set out in Article 3 of the new VBER. However, the new Guidelines warn against using overly narrow parity obligations by online platforms covering a significant share of users, stating that if there is no evidence of pro-competitive effects, the benefit of the block exemption is likely to be withdrawn.

Impact and takeaways

The new VBER entered into force on 1 June 2022 and is already applicable to agreements signed after that date. Agreements already in force on 31 May 2022 that satisfy the conditions for exemption under the current VBER but do not satisfy the requirements under the new VBER shall benefit from a one-year transitional period.

The new regime will be the playing field for all platform-driven sales over the next 12 years (the regulation expires on 31 May 2034). Currently, the rather restrictive novelties on hybrid platforms and parity obligations will likely necessitate substantial revisions to existing trade agreements.

Here, then, are some tips for managing contracts and relationships with online platforms:

  • the new VBER is the right opportunity to review the existing distribution networks. The revision will have to consider not only the new regulatory limits (e.g., the ban on wide parity clauses) but also the new discipline reserved for hybrid platforms and dual distribution to coordinate the different distribution channels as efficiently as possible, by the stakes set by the new VBER and the Guidelines;
  • platforms are likely to play an even greater role during the next decade; it is, therefore, essential to consider these sales channels from the outset, coordinating them with the other existing ones (retail, direct sales, distributors, etc.) to avoid jeopardizing the marketing of products or services;
  • the European legislator’s attention toward platforms is growing. Looking up from the VBER, one should not forget that they are subject to a multitude of other European regulations, which are gradually regulating the sector and which must be considered when concluding contracts with platforms. The reference is not only to the recent Digital Market Act and P2B Regulation but also to the protection of IP rights on platforms, which – as we have already seen – is still an open issue.
Giuliano Stasio
  • Arbitration
  • Contracts
  • e-commerce
  • Intellectual property
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