ACM Agenda topics: enforcement and progress so far
The current Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has far-reaching effects on people and businesses. Over the past few months, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has monitored economic developments, and, where needed, has reminded market participants of consumer rights. ACM was ready to examine how much leeway the competition rules offered for taking into consideration these extraordinary circumstances. Furthermore, we carried on with regular enforcement cases too. For example, in the first half of 2020, ACM imposed a fine of more than 80 million euros on several firms for violating the cartel prohibition by exchanging information through third parties regarding connection with future selling prices. Another company was fined more than 1 million euros for offering consumers contracts with too high cancellation fees. These sanctions followed investigations conducted by ACM into compliance with competition rules and consumer protection rules. The companies in question have asked the courts to halt temporarily the publication of the fining decisions. These proceedings are still ongoing. Therefore, further details about these cases cannot be disclosed at this point. Finally, ACM has imposed fines, totaling over 20,000 euros on two companies for distortion of competition in a tender process. These fining decisions will be published soon.
Focus areas in 2020
At the beginning of the year, ACM announced its focus areas for 2020. Next to the two main focus areas, the digital economy and the energy transition, ACM also announced it would pay special attention to the effects that mergers have on terms of employment, and to the prices of prescription drugs. For example, in its decision regarding the acquisition of Sanoma publications by DPG, ACM paid attention to possible negative effects on terms of employment. In that particular case, ACM did not expect any negative effects. With regard to excessive prices of drugs, ACM is currently conducting an investigation into the prices of orphan drug CDCA manufactured by Leadiant. ACM expects to complete its factual investigation after the summer.
The digital economy
As part of its focus area ‘the digital economy’, ACM in 2020 looks at online misleading practices and access to digital platforms with great interest. For example, in the first half of 2020, ACM called attention to the digital phenomenon of fake likes and fake reviews, and announced to take action against market participants that offer and use misleading appraisals. In addition, ACM is currently conducting an investigation into Apple, and whether it abuses a dominant position through the conditions that it attaches to certain categories of apps for inclusion in its App Store. ACM expects to complete its factual investigation in the fall. At the beginning of this year, ACM, together with several telecom operators, withdrew 100 phone numbers that were used by fake help desks. In two merger cases, ACM also attached conditions to the collaboration with regard to Mobility as a Service (MaaS), a service that allows travelers to plan, book, and pay for trips from doorstep to destination, combining different modes of transportation, through the use of a single app. With these conditions, ACM makes sure that new entrants are able to gain access to these platforms, and that sufficient competition between MaaS-apps remains possible, now and in the future.
The energy transition
In the transition to sustainable energy, people and businesses have to be able to rely on well-functioning energy markets. In the first half of 2020, ACM carried out investigations into aggressive customer-recruitment practices among energy suppliers, and into sustainability claims made about products and services. For example, ACM recently contacted an insulation company over the claims on its website about energy saving. This company immediately adjusted its information. Misleading claims and logos regarding sustainability will continue to have ACM’s attention over the next few months. Furthermore, ACM in 2020 twice gave the Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy recommendations about the conditions under which network companies could play a larger role on the heat market than they currently have. Also, ACM granted TenneT an exemption from the obligation to reserve part of the power grid in the north of the Netherlands for contingencies. TenneT is now allowed to use that part of the grid for the transmission of sustainable power. Furthermore, ACM published for consultation its draft Guidelines regarding network companies and alternative energy carriers (in Dutch) in which it offers certainty about the activities that network companies are allowed to engage in with regard to alternative energy carriers. ACM additionally published for public consultation its draft Guidelines regarding sustainability agreements. In these guidelines, ACM offers various examples of collaborations between companies related to sustainability that are not at odds with competition rules.
ACM’s oversight during the Coronavirus crisis
ACM is ready to answer any questions that consumers have about their rights, as well as those that businesses have about collaborations to combat the Coronavirus crisis. Over the past several months, ACM’s consumer information portal ACM ConsuWijzer has received over 16,000 coronavirus-related questions and reports. That was one of the reasons to publish extensive consumer information (in Dutch) on ACM ConsuWijzer’s site, for example, about cancelling trips, vouchers that businesses currently offer for products or services or subscriptions that are temporarily suspended. These pages have been visited more than 330,000 times these past few months. ACM’s website also offers businesses guidance for voucher schemes, for example, what conditions such schemes should meet. Following media reports, ACM launched an investigation into Roche Diagnostics in connection with expanding test capacity in the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. Roche has committed to ACM to doing everything it can (and what can be reasonably expected from it) to enable hospitals and laboratories to carry out as many tests as possible and to eliminate any obstacles as much as possible.
Now that the Coronavirus outbreak has entered a new phase, ACM will examine whether recently forged collaborations between businesses are still necessary for combating the crisis.
ACM contributes to realizing a healthy economy by ensuring that markets work well for people and businesses, now and in the future. ACM enforces the rules that apply to businesses by tackling unfair commercial practices, and by promoting compliance with those rules. ACM provides information and guidance so that everyone knows these rules, and is able to exercise their rights.