European Union regulators filed antitrust charges Tuesday against Amazon, accusing the e-commerce giant of using its access to data to gain an unfair advantage over merchants using its platform.
The EU's executive Commission, the bloc's top antitrust enforcer, issued the charges after it started looking into the company two years ago. Adding to Amazon's regulatory headaches, the EU also opened a second investigation into whether the company favors product offers and merchants that use its own logistics and delivery system, reports AP.
It’s the latest effort by Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, the EU commissioner in charge of competition issues, to curb the power of big technology companies. She has slapped Google with antitrust fines totaling nearly $10 billion and opened twin antitrust investigations this summer into Apple. The U.S. has started taking a tougher line as well, suing Google this year for abusing its dominance in online search and advertising.
It’s not a problem that Amazon is big and successful but “our concern is very specific business conduct which appears to distort genuine competition," Vestager said.
EU officials focused on the company’s dual role as a marketplace and retailer. In addition to selling its own products, the U.S. company allows third-party retailers to sell their own goods through its site.
The commission took issue with Amazon’s systematic use of business data that it has exclusive access to, allowing it to avoid the normal risks of competition and leverage its dominance for e-commerce services in France and Germany, the company’s two biggest markets in the EU.
Amazon faces a possible fine of up to 10% of its annual worldwide revenue, which could amount to as much as $28 billion based on its 2019 earnings. The company rejected the accusations.
“We disagree with the preliminary assertions of the European Commission and will continue to make every effort to ensure it has an accurate understanding of the facts,” the company said in a statement, adding that it represents less than 1% of the global retail market and that there are bigger retailers in every country where it operates. Under EU rules, it can reply to the charges in writing and present its case in an oral hearing.
It could still be a while before a final decision as there are no legal deadlines for bringing an EU antitrust case to an end.
Investigators analyzed data covering 80 million transactions and 100 million products listed on Amazon's site. Vestager said they found that “very granular, real time business data" on third-party product listings and transactions was fed into algorithms for Amazon's retail business that decide which new products to launch, their price and supplier.
"In other words, this is a case about big data," Vestager told a press briefing in Brussels.
Ordinary retailers take risks when they invest heavily to find new products, bring them to market and decide how much to sell them for, Vestager said. “Our concern is that Amazon can avoid some of those risks by using the data it has access to."
The preliminary conclusion, she said, is that by using the data Amazon can focus on the best-selling products, “and this marginalizes third-party sellers and caps their ability to grow.” She didn't give specific examples of merchants affected by Amazon's behavior.
The stakes have risen for retailers as many European countries have shut nonessential shops temporarily to try to contain the coronavirus pandemic, pushing more shopping online, where Amazon is a major presence.
The EU's second investigation will look at the criteria Amazon uses to decide which seller's product gets chosen for the “buy box" and for its Prime membership service, and whether that means they get preferential treatment by the company's logistics and delivery services.
The buy box, found on the right side of Amazon's site, lets shoppers add items directly to their shopping baskets. The box features a single seller's product even though multiple merchants might offer it.
The second investigation excludes Italy, because the country's competition watchdog has already launched a similar probe last year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t congratulate President-elect Joe Biden until legal challenges to the U.S. election are resolved and the result is official, the Kremlin announced Monday.
Putin is one of a handful of world leaders who have not commented on Biden’s victory, which was called by major news organizations on Saturday. But President Donald Trump’s team has promised legal action in the coming days and refused to concede his loss, while alleging large-scale voter fraud, so far without proof.
When Trump won in 2016, Putin was prompt in offering congratulations — but Trump’s challenger in that election, Hillary Clinton, also conceded the day after the vote.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that this year is different.
“Obviously, you can see that certain legal procedures are coming there, which were announced by the incumbent president — therefore this situation is different, so we consider it correct to wait for the official announcement,” he said.
The leaders of China, Brazil and Turkey also are holdouts in offering congratulations. And Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also said he would wait to comment until the legal challenges were resolved.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin offered a similar explanation of why President Xi Jinping has stayed silent.
“We understand the presidential election result will be determined following U.S. laws and procedures,” he said.
A senior Turkish official said Ankara also was waiting for the various legal challenges to be settled before congratulating “the winner.”
“Turkey will congratulate the winner as soon as the results of the election will become official as part of the respect it has for the U.S. people and democracy,” said Omer Celik, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party. “We are waiting for the final results ... because there are objections and other disputes.”
Celik said Turkey knows both Trump and Biden and is prepared to work with “whichever wing” is the winner.
Peskov suggested that when the time comes, a congratulatory message from Putin would come with all the expected protocol.
“I remind you that Vladimir Putin said more than once that he will respect any choice of American people, and will be ready to work with any chosen president of the United States,” he said.
For now, Putin’s holding back allows a delay in addressing that fraught question of how to improve relations. Although Russian politicians widely lauded Trump’s election in 2016, expecting him to make good on his promises of improving ties, his administration disappointed Moscow by enacting sanctions, expelling scores of Russian diplomats in the wake of the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal in the U.K., and authorizing lethal weapons sales to Ukraine.
But Russia is characteristically wary of Democratic U.S. administrations because they tend to be more forward about criticizing Russia on human rights and democracy issues.
Biden, in a 2011 trip to Russia as vice president, epitomized that approach in a speech at Moscow Statue University, the country’s most prestigious higher education institution.
“Don’t compromise on the basic elements of democracy. You need not make that Faustian bargain,” he told students.
Biden also is tainted in Russia’s eyes by having been the Obama administration’s point-man in Ukraine after the uprising that drove the country’s Kremlin-friendly president from power in 2014. Russia contended that those protests were fomented by the United States.
Russian officials frequently blamed the difficulties of Moscow-Washington relations during the Trump administration on alleged “Russophobia” carried over from the Obama years. Some politicians expect that could increase under Biden.
“With the victory of a Democrat, one can expect revenge from all nonconservative forces around the world. This means more Russophobia in Europe, more deaths in (eastern Ukraine) and in many other hot spots of the world, as well as more politically motivated sanctions, if we talk about the direct and simplest consequences,” said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, whose views generally parallel the Kremlin’s.
“The Biden administration may return to a much more assertive policy in the post-Soviet space, which is always extremely unnerving for Moscow,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia In Global Affairs journal, told the state news agency Tass.
Both, however, noted that a Biden administration is likely to be more amenable to international cooperation, especially in arms control such as renewing the New START treaty between Russia and the U.S. that is to expire next year.
Kosachev also suggested that Biden’s election would largely eliminate complaints about Russian election interference, thereby smoothing the way for armaments agreements.
“Not that we believe Washington will be sobering up, but at least a key irritant can go away. Is this not a reason for the resumption of negotiations, for example, on arms control? We are definitely ready,” he said.
In times when a pandemic unleashes death and poverty, the concept of what is essential to keep society functioning in a lockdown is gripping Europe.
Beyond the obvious — food stores and pharmacies — some answers in the patchwork of nations and cultures that make up Europe can approach the surreal. What is allowed on one side of a border can be banned just a brief stroll down the road, on the other.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that while it might seem fairest to just shut everything down, “it’s perhaps not the most practical” solution.
“If people are only satisfied when everything possible is shut down, then that’s a view which naturally doesn’t make economic sense,” Merkel said.
That’s why Germany is keeping car dealerships open this time, after their closure in the first, spring lockdown hurt the country’s huge automobile industry.
In Belgium, of course, chocolate shops are staying open.
“Chocolate is very much an essential food around here,” said chocolatier Marleen Van Volsem at the Praleen chocolaterie south of Brussels. “It has to be. Because chocolate makes you happy.”
Happiness would seem no subject to split hairs about. Yet consider how differently Italy and Britain treat a service that gladdens many a heart.
In the country that coined the term “bella figura” — the art of cutting a fine figure — hairdressers are deemed essential.
“Italians really care about their image and about wellness,”″ said Charity Cheah, the Milan-based co-founder of TONI&GUY Italy. “Perhaps psychologically, the government may feel that going to a salon is a moment of release from stress and tension, a moment of self-care, that citizens need.”
But across England people have had to scramble to get their hair done in the last days and hours while they still could, before new pandemic restrictions came into force on Thursday.
“The thought of another lockdown and being stuck at home — (people thought) I’m going to throw caution to the wind and I am just going to come in and have my hair done,” said Richard Ward, managing director at the Richard Ward Hair and Metro Spa on London’s swank Sloane Square.
And then there are life’s finer pleasures.
In France, the love of books is unquestioned. No country has more Nobel Prize-winners in Literature, and a book review program on TV like Apostrophes used to be watched by millions every week. But walk the streets of Paris and you will find bookshops closed.
Sylvia Whitman, who runs the famed Shakespeare and Co. bookstore on the Left Bank, seethes at the prospect of giant online platforms gobbling up business while her shop is shuttered. Her sales have dropped 80% since the the spring lockdown.
“I find it really tiring that the bigger you are the more you can ignore laws, you can avoid taxes, you can find loopholes,” she said. “The smaller you are, the more expensive and the more complicated things are. “
Across the border in Belgium, books were deemed essential. Even then, Wouter Cajot, owner of the ’t Stad Leest in the port of Antwerp finds it a mixed blessing. The lockdown has reduced passing shoppers to a trickle and he will have to decide whether heating and personnel costs make it worth his staying open.
But when essential goods cannot be bought in a store they can still be delivered.
“During the first lockdown we had to invent a website in three days and nights,” said Cajot, and he got “new logistical equipment — a cargo bike,” to the delight of his Antwerp clients who get books delivered within hours of placing their order. “So why order books at an international online giant when the corner bookstore can deliver same-day by bike?”
That’s also become a question of government policy. With small shops often forced to suspend operations, and drifting closer to bankruptcy as a result, the door is wide open for supermarket chains and online giants to pounce. Several countries have taken steps to ensure supermarkets during lockdown cannot sell many products that provide the livelihood of closed shops.
It can get very complicated, with some supermarkets forced to tape off sections of their merchandise. In Belgium, Christmas decorations which took weeks to set up may now be hidden from view, since retail stores cannot sell them, as they are deemed non-essential.
“Books and magazines are allowed,” said Harry Decraene, manager of a Carrefour department west of Brussels. “DVDs, CDs and games are not allowed. Sewing equipment is allowed, stationery is allowed, garden equipment can be sold. Pots and pans, toys and Christmas supplies are not allowed.”
Just as toys would seem essential for children, petanque — France’s traditional outdoors game that involves mostly elderly players tossing metal balls with leisurely accuracy — might be considered a must for the country’s retirees.
There is nothing quite like the petanque grounds of the Provencal village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where the likes of actors Yves Montand and Lino Ventura would click their balls on the dirt. Now they’re deserted, as the government opined that petanque is not essential.
“It’s a leisure activity, we can do without it,” said Sandrine Leonard, who manages the local tourism information center. Now that dead leaves provide the color the sun usually does, “it’s more a period to stay quietly at home, to do some cooking. We spend less time outdoors. Hence the importance of having a good book.”
But wait! Bookshops are closed.
Coronavirus cases hit new daily highs this week in Russia, and Germany and the U.K. announced plans Tuesday to expand virus testing as European countries battled rapidly increasing COVID-19 infections and hospitalisations.
Nations reintroduced restrictions to get ahead of a virus that has caused more than 1.2 million deaths around the globe, over 270,000 of them in Europe, according to Johns Hopkins University, and is straining health care systems.
New measures took effect Tuesday in Austria, Greece and Sweden, following a partial shutdown imposed in Germany Monday and tighter rules in Italy, France, Kosovo and Croatia. England faces a near-total lockdown from Thursday, although schools and universities will stay open.
Infections spiked in Russia, where authorities reported 18.648 new cases Tuesday. It was the fifth straight day of more than 18,000 confirmed cases, compared to the country’s daily record of over 11,000 in the spring.
Russia has the world’s fourth-highest reported coronavirus caseload with over 1.6 million people confirmed infected, including more than 28,000 who died in the pandemic.
The country lifted most virus-related restrictions this summer, and Russian officials say the health care system can cope. However, alarming reports have surfaced of overwhelmed hospitals, drug shortages and inundated medical workers.
Sweden, where the government skipped the lockdowns other nations adopted for a much-debated approach that kept much of society open, set new nationwide limits on restaurants and cafes, ordering them them to serve only seated customers and with a maximum of eight per table. The Scandinavian country announced local restrictions in three more counties that include Sweden’s largest cities.
“We are going in the wrong direction. The situation is very serious,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. “Now, every citizen needs to take responsibility. We know how dangerous this is.”
The country of 10 million people has 134,532 reported cases and nearly 6,000 deaths.
Amid the gloom, a partial lockdown in the Netherlands appeared to be paying off; Dutch officials reported the number of new confirmed cases fell 5% to 64,087 in the past seven days, the first decline in weeks.
The fall came three weeks after the government put the nation of 17 million on partial lockdown, including closing bars and restaurants, halting amateur sports for adults and urging people to work from home.
Dutch authorities remain concerned the number of COVID-19 patients is putting an unbearable strain on hospitals, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced further restrictions Tuesday night.
“It’s not going too bad but certainly not good enough. The infection numbers have to go down quicker,” Rutte said as he explained that the government was closing cinemas, theaters, swimming pools and museums for two weeks.
He warned that some regions could be placed under curfews if infection rates do not drop, and warned residents of the Netherlands not to travel abroad until mid-January.
In Italy, Premier Giuseppe Conte late Tuesday signed a decree putting more pandemic limits on the country, RAI state radio said. The government was poised to announce details Wednesday. But earlier in the week, Conte said the stiffer measures would include an overnight, nationwide curfew.
Italy’s new decree would also ban people from entering or leaving the nation’s hardest-hit regions and shut down all non-essential shops in those places. Just which regions will be determined Wednesday after health experts study the latest numbers on infections and hospital-bed capacity.
In Britain, the government plans to offer regular COVID-19 testing to anyone living or working in Liverpool, a city of 500,000.
“These more advanced tests will help identify infectious individuals who are not displaying symptoms...so they can self-isolate and prevent the virus from spreading,” the Department of Health said.
The trial in Liverpool, which has one of the highest infection rates in England with more than 410 cases per 100,000 people, is seen as a test of how Britain might roll out mass testing nationwide.
Germany said it is bulk-buying millions of antigen tests, which produce rapid results, to avoid banning visitors to nursing homes and preventing the anguish to residents and their relatives that such isolation caused in the spring. Nursing homes will receive up to 20 free monthly tests per resident, which can be used to test patients, staff members and visitors who might be unwitting virus carriers.
Melanie Brinkmann, an expert with Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, said no individual public health measure can slow the spread of the virus, but that together they are effective.
She likened actions such as social distancing, mask use, handwashing and widening the use of antigen tests to slices of Swiss cheese, which individually have holes but together form a solid block.
“The Swiss cheese model says that every slice of cheese has holes, imperfections,” Brinkmann said. The measures “are all new slices of the cheese that all have their imperfections, but if we stack them all together with one another, we can better protect ourselves from this virus.”
In neighboring Austria, new restrictions that took effect Tuesday allow restaurants and bars to operate only for deliveries and takeout until the end of the month, and cancel cultural, sports and leisure activities.. Non-essential stores remain open, but residents were asked to stay home between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Greece locked down its second-largest city, Thessaloniki, and the neighboring northern province of Serres beginning Tuesday. Residents can only leave home for specific reasons after notifying authorities by text message. Lighter restrictions took effect in Athens, where restaurants, bars, cafes, gyms, museums and entertainment venues shut down.
Domestic and international flights to Thessaloniki were canceled and retail stores, restaurants, gyms, churches and entertainment venues shut for two weeks. Primary schools and junior high schools remain open, but senior high school and university classes moved online.
“What happened is necessary,” said 39-year-old Thessaloniki resident Angelos Georgiadis. “We got to a lockdown because of having fun, the cafes were packed. Now we wish and hope we get over this quickly.”
Nationwide, the government imposed a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew and made masks compulsory outdoors. Greece, which has a population of about 11 million, reported a record 2,166 daily cases Tuesday and 13 deaths, bringing its total confirmed cases to over 44,200 and COVID-19 deaths to 655.
In France, where health authorities reported 36,330 new confirmed cases since the day before, high school students blocked entrances to about a dozen schools in Paris to protest a month-long lockdown.
At one Paris school, police fired tear gas to disperse a rowdy crowd, and some 40 students were fined 135 euros ($158) for breaking confinement rules, Le Parisien newspaper reported. Paris schools remain open, but students said virus control measures weren’t being respected. They shared images on social networks of overcrowded classrooms and common areas.
French health authorities on Tuesday also reported 854 new virus-related deaths, bringing the country’s death toll in the pandemic to 38,289, the world’s seventh-highest number. The new figure includes 426 people who died in hospitals in the past 24 hours, and 428 who had died in nursing homes since Friday, authorities said.
COVID-19 patients now occupy more than 73% of France’s intensive care units, a rapidly rising share that prompted the week the government to impose the monthlong lockdown that shut all nonessential businesses.
A French government decree published Tuesday laid out what “essential” items can be sold during the lockdown. Supermarkets are banned from selling flowers and books, but can still sell items for baby care, personal hygiene and grooming, as well as household cleaning products.
Supermarkets sealed off aisles or took products off shelves based on the new rules, which came after small businesses like florists and bookstores complained they were being unfairly punished by being forced to close.
A new national lockdown in England may have to last longer than the planned four weeks if coronavirus infection rates don’t fall quickly enough, a senior government minister said Sunday.
The lockdown announced Saturday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to run from Thursday until Dec. 2.
Johnson says it's needed to stop hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients within weeks.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove said it was the government’s “fervent hope” that the lockdown would end on time, but that could not be guaranteed.
Under the new restrictions, bars and restaurants can only offer take-out, non-essential shops must close and people will only be able to leave home for a short list of reasons including exercise. Hairdressers, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and bowling alleys are among venues that must shut down, and foreign holidays are barred.
Unlike during the U.K.’s first three-month coronavirus lockdown earlier this year, schools, universities, construction sites and manufacturing businesses will stay open.
Britain has the worst virus death toll in Europe, with more than 46,700 dead. It passed 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases on Saturday and confirmed another 23,254 new infections on Sunday.
Like other European countries, virus cases in the U.K. began to climb after lockdown measures were eased in the summer and people began to return to workplaces, schools, universities and social life. In recent weeks, new infections have been soaring across the continent, especially in Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Spain and the U.K.
Johnson had hoped regional restrictions introduced in October, mostly in northern England, would be enough to push the numbers of new infections down. But government scientific advisers predict that on the outbreak’s current trajectory, the demand for hospital beds will exceed the capacity by the first week of December, even if temporary hospitals are set up again.
A government program that has paid the wages of millions of furloughed employees during the pandemic has been extended during the new lockdown. Many businesses say that is not enough, especially in the arts, where most people work as freelancers.
Mark Davyd, chief executive of the Music Venue Trust, urged the government to offer the live events industry further financial support, as has been done in France and Germany.
“We look forward to urgent details from ministers on the financial package that will protect businesses and livelihoods in this vital, world-leading British industry,” he said.
Also Sunday, the government and Transport for London struck a deal to keep buses and subways running in the capital, where passenger numbers have collapsed because of the pandemic. The mix of grants and loans worth 1.8 billion pounds ($2.3 billion) is earmarked to keep the system operating until the end of March.
Under the new restrictions, places of worship can stay open for private prayer and funerals, but not for communal services. That has drawn criticism from England’s top two Roman Catholic clergy, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, who say the suspension would cause “deep anguish."
The restrictions will apply to England. Other parts of the U.K. govern their own public health measures, with Wales and Northern Ireland already effectively in lockdown and Scotland under a set of tough regional restrictions.