The German Federal Cartel Office (”FCO“) has launched a sector inquiry into “online price comparison websites.” This sector inquiry is the first specific proceeding in which the FCO applies its new competencies in the area of consumer protection given to it by the 9th amendment to the German Act against Restraints of Competition (“ARC”). Another sector inquiry concerning consumer protection issues in everyday digital life might follow next year.
Sector inquiries are not targeted against individual companies. Their purpose is to thoroughly examine the conditions on a general market in order to identify potential infringements of legal provisions. The FCO will summarise the results of its investigation in a report. If infringements by individual companies are detected in the course of the sector inquiry, this might subsequently lead to the initiation of proceedings against individual companies. In the past, this was only possible in relation to infringements of competition law.
By the amendment to the ARC, which entered into force on 9 June 2017, the FCO has also been given such competencies in the area of consumer protection and has set up a new division for this specific purpose. The new competencies should be seen as a supplement and back-up to the well-established system of privately enforced consumer protection. Currently, the FCO has only investigative powers, but it has not yet been granted decision making and enforcement powers in relation to consumer protection issues.
Its new investigation powers allow the FCO to launch a sector inquiry whenever there are indications for a severe violation of consumer protection laws or the legal requirements for general terms and conditions that affect a large group of customers.
The FCO has identified the so-called “digital economy” as an area where one infringement by one company could harm millions of customers. Therefore, it decided to focus on this area for its first sector inquiry by its new division for consumer protection.