Competition authorities like being seen to protect consumers and to keep big businesses in line. There is nothing wrong with that. In situations of crisis and unprecedented developments, competition law can me more nimble than regulation and be flexed to deal with issues before regulation emerges.
But can competition law be used to enforce one thing and its opposite at the same time, with potentially hefty fines either way? Allegedly excessive prices on Amazon seem to have taken diverging reactions of regulators to the extreme.
The early days of lock downs in Europe saw price gauging at unprecedented levels for hand gel, masks and basic hygiene products. Demand was skyrocketing as supply chains were disrupted and could not cope. Of course, competition authorities were keen to do their part fixing the problem but in surprisingly contradictory ways.
The UK's CMA proudly announced that it "wrote to Amazon and eBay and have continued to engage with them to help ensure listings that charge unjustifiable prices for essential goods are removed quickly". The pragmatic British approach seems to have worked. The two platforms "are taking steps to remove and block such listings".
A couple of weeks later, Amazon received another letter. This one was from the German competition authority. The Bundeskartellamt opened an investigation, apparently because Amazon had followed the CMA's request. It is investigating complaints that Amazon had blocked some traders because of allegedly overly high prices.
So what does competition law now require Amazon to do? Does it have to remove excessively priced offers as the CMA seems to think? Or is doing so infringing competition laws and exposing the company to fines?
There were the good old days when the UK was still in the EU's competition network. A perfect forum to discuss diverging views and to avoid the embarrassment of contradicting positions. Or to conclude that things need a bit more reflection before companies are put on the spot.
Amazon must not be a controller of prices