Europe approves new internet rules designed to rein in Amazon and co

As part of the overall Digital Single Market programme, the European Parliament has voted to approve new regulations claiming to protect European businesses and consumers when using online platforms to trade.

The “Regulation on platform-to-business trading practices” has been almost two years in the making since the publication of a document titled “Online Platforms and the Digital Single Market: Opportunities and Challenges for Europe” by the European Commission in May 2016.

The EU executives were understandably happy with the passing of the new rules. “We are delighted by the overwhelming support to the new rules on online platforms’ trading practices among the members of the European Parliament. As the first-ever regulation in the world that addresses the challenges of business relations within the online platform economy, it is an important milestone of the Digital Single Market and lays the ground for future developments. Not only will it improve trust, predictability and legal certainty, it will also offer new and accessible options for redress and resolution of disputes between businesses and platforms,” said the official statement, jointly signed off by Andrus Ansip, the Commission’s Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, and Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.

What drove the Commission to undertake such an initiative two years ago was the understanding that there is a lack of a redress mechanism when the European SMEs encounter problems when trading on the global platforms (companies singled out include Booking.com, Facebook, eBay, and Amazon), for example, “delisting without statement of reasons or sudden changes of Terms and Conditions”. The Commission has also assessed the effectiveness of legislative vs. non-legislative measures, but believed an EU-wide legislation is necessary.

The Regulation is aimed to achieve three main objectives as are outlined in the Impact Assessment Summary published a year ago:

  1. To ensure a fair, transparent and predictable treatment of business users by online platforms
  2. To provide business users with more effective options for redress when they face problems
  3. To create a predictable and innovation-friendly regulatory environment for online platforms within the EU

Although it has been approved by the European Parliament, the regulation still needs to be formally passed by the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of the member states and can be roughly seen as another “chamber” of the union’s legislature. There is no definite timeline on when the Council will make the decision. However, by the reading of the press statement where the Commissioners thanked the member states “for their great efforts to reach a good compromise in a very short period of time. This is yet another positive development ahead of the upcoming European elections,” the Council may not be able to vote on it before the European Parliamentary election in May. After the final approval, the regulation will enter into force 12 months after it is published in the Official Journal.

This is the latest internet-related legislation the EU has made recently. On 15 April the Council passed the updated Copyright Directive “fit for the digital age”, which has proved controversial.  There are also legislation and regulation updates in member states. France has started levying 3% income tax on digital companies with sales in excess of €25 million in France and €750 million globally, without waiting for an EU-wide tax regime as part of the Digital Single Market. The UK, still an EU member state at the time of writing, has not only considered setting up a new regulator to oversee the digital world and started the consultation process of a “code of practice for online services” to protect children, but will also formally introduce the “porn block” on 15 July, which has been called “One of the Worst Ideas Ever” by some critics.

Softbank turns its attention to Latin American start-ups

Softbank has announced the launch of yet another investment fund, this time turning its eyes towards the unfulfilled promise of Latin America.

Alongside the fund, the SoftBank Latin America Local Hub will also be created, an operating group which will help companies in the other Softbank portfolios enter Latin America, navigate the local markets and broaden their geographic reach. Yet again, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son is attempting to prove he wasted decades in the telco space and should have been focusing on investment management.

“Latin America is on the cusp of becoming one of the most important economic regions in the world, and we anticipate significant growth in the decades ahead,” said Son.

“SBG plans to invest in entrepreneurs throughout Latin America and use technology to help address the challenges faced by many emerging economies with the goal of improving the lives of millions of Latin Americans. I am grateful to our Chief Operating Officer Marcelo Claure for leading this initiative, in addition to his other responsibilities at SBG.”

The SoftBank Innovation Fund will aim to raise funds totalling $5 billion, with Softbank contributing the first $2 billion, with a particular focus on e-commerce, digital financial services, healthcare, mobility and insurance.

For years, Latin America has been promised as a land of fortunes. With several economies on the verge of blossoming, the realities of the world have staggered success. Political controversies, violence, poor infrastructure and hostile environments have been some of the reasons this region has yet to properly flourish, however the statistics are on its side.

Since 2000, over 50 million people in the region have entered the middle class, increasing the amount of disposable income flowing around the local economies. Internet and smartphone penetration have grown considerably, to 375 million and 250 million respectively. E-commerce sales have jumped from $29.8 billion in 2015 to $54 billion in 2018, suggesting digital society is bedding in.

Combining all of these factors suggest there are fortunes to be made with the right execution. Many have failed to capitalise on the promise, but there has been renewed enthusiasm in recent years.

Liberty Global is excellent example of a company which seems to think this is a market set to burst. Over the last couple of years, Liberty Global has been trimming back its exposure in Europe, note its recent asset disposals to Vodafone in Germany and Sunrise in Switzerland, as well as spinning off Liberty Latin America as an independent, publicly-traded company. Chairman John Malone has built a successful business over the last few decades, and now he clearly spots something he likes in the Latin American markets.

Another interesting development is over at Telefonica. The Spanish telco is seemingly positioning Aura as a potential competitor to the Google and Amazon digital assistants, fighting to manage the consumer’s digital ecosystem, though initial launches have been focused on its Latin American business units, not its domestic market.

Latin America is a market which has consistently failed to deliver on the promise, but eventually the bubble will burst, and fortunes will be made. Whether this is another false dawn remains to be seen but laying the foundations for the future is not necessarily a bad move.

Amazon China staff were reportedly selling-on user data

Amazon is conducting an internal investigation into allegations that its staff in China received bribes from merchants for user data.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, staff of the online retailing giant’s China operation received between $80 and more than $2,000 to part internal user and sales data to brokers, who would then re-sell them to merchants who do business on Amazon platform. According to the WSJ report, it was not only Amazon’s internal sales metrics and users’ email addresses that were sold, also on offer was additional services. The staff would help the buyers to delete negative reviews and to re-open banned Amazon accounts.

It is said the malpractice was particularly rampant in Amazon’s office in Shenzhen, the city bordering Hong Kong. It is not the first time China’s online retailers suffered from data security comprise. Back in 2016 over 20 million of Alibaba’s users had their data hacked. Nor is this the first time that Amazon has found itself in the centre of data leaking controversies, but earlier cases were related to its cloud service AWS. So it is astonishing that in the present case, data was not breached by hacking but through blatant criminal transactions. It is not clear how many users have had their data sold.

Amazon released a statement saying “We have zero tolerance for abuse of our systems and if we find bad actors who have engaged in this behaviour, we will take swift action against them, including terminating their selling accounts, deleting reviews, withholding funds, and taking legal action.”

Amazon set up its business in China in 2004 after acquiring a competing online bookshop Joyo with $75 million. It was rebranded Amazon China in 2011.