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Fay Zhou (L), Janet Hui, Vivian Cao

中国正在加强对反垄断立法的监督和执法,这一趋势可能对中国的平台经济产生重大影响。

 

近日,中国国家市场监督管理总局(“市监局”)因电商巨头阿里巴巴集团违反《反垄断法》,对其处以182.28亿元人民币(约27.5亿美元)的罚款,并发出《行政指导书》,要求阿里巴巴集团进行全面整改,需连续三年提交自查合规报告。

市监局表示,开出巨额罚单是由于阿里巴巴在中国境内滥用其网络零售平台服务市场的支配地位,对平台内商家提出“二选一”要求,禁止平台内商家在其他竞争性平台开店或参加促销活动,以此增强自身市场力量,获取不正当竞争优势。

阿里巴巴回应表示,对于处罚“诚恳接受,坚决服从”,“将强化依法经营,进一步加强合规体系建设,立足创新发展,更好履行社会责任”。

此次对阿里巴巴的罚款创下中国史上最大笔企业罚款记录。早在2015年,全球最大智能手机晶片供应商高通因反垄断调查向中国支付了9.75亿美元罚金。

作为《平台经济反垄断指南》生效之后的第一案,阿里巴巴案件对未来平台反垄断案件有着指导性作用。君合律师事务所合伙人许蓉蓉律师告诉ALB,阿里巴巴案尤其在判断什么是支配地位、垄断行为上有着很重要的指导意义。

许律师指出,阿里巴巴第一案证明中国的反垄断调查不只针对外国企业,中国企业也会受到重点关注。经过调查,如有违法行为,相关企业就会受到行政处罚。

其次,她认为监管部门的此次决定极具“水准”。决定中不但提到所有反垄断技术层面问题,并进行了经济学分析。决定还具体指出了违反行为、抗辩理由等具体信息,在公开透明上有很大的进步。

最后,"此案对经营者提供了一个很好的先例,告诉他们一些法律的原则应该怎样去遵守。"许律师说。

她指出,同时发布的《行政指导书》将对其它企业起到示范作用。其他电商平台企业可考虑参照《行政指导书》以及《平台经济反垄断指南》等规定对自身的反垄断合规情况进行排查,并结合排查情况采取具体措施。

另外,年利达律师事务所竞争与反垄断部门合伙人周越律师告诉ALB,《行政指导书》提出的“加大平台内数据和应用、支付等资源端口开放力度,促进跨平台互联互通和互操作等”,将对整个行业产生指导性意义,可能对中国平台经济竞争格局和模式产生结构性影响。

电商须自查合规

对阿里巴巴开出天价罚单无疑震慑了其他大型电商平台,迫使他们重新检视其业务模式,避免被认定有“二选一”、“大数据杀熟”、“平台屏蔽封禁”等垄断行为。阿里巴巴其后也表示,将采取措施降低电子商务平台上商家的进入门槛和商业成本。

“电商需要重塑盈利与业务模式,检视自己属于哪种相关市场,也需要从技术层面进行自我检讨。一旦自检发现现存业务模式涉及垄断,必将引发严重影响。”

—许蓉蓉,君合律师事务所

谈及阿里巴巴案对电商平台的重要性,许蓉蓉律师认为,此次案件对整个互联网平台影响深远。经过此次事件,电商需要重塑盈利与业务模式,检视自己属于哪种相关市场,也需要从技术层面进行自我检讨。一旦自检发现现存业务模式涉及垄断,必将引发严重影响。

“但与此同时,小平台可能面临新的生机。”许律师说。没有了“二选一”或类似的独家性规定后,会有更多商家加入小平台,令其更具竞争力。因此,她指出反垄断合规整改迫在眉睫,其未来也会缔造愈发公平的竞争环境。

周越律师补充道,市监局联合网信办和税务总局近期要求34家平台企业根据《反垄断法》等法律法规进行自查,并公开向社会作出合规承诺。这标志着监管部门意图将近期的反垄断法规和处罚作为行业整改的契机,推动解决中国平台经济存在的各类反竞争问题。

“面对强监管的新环境和新常态,互联网企业应当主动调整心态和策略,将竞争合规作为经营管理和风险防控的重点内容。”周律师说。“在中国平台经济发展进入新阶段的大背景下,反垄断执法将常态化,并作为规范行业秩序、促进市场竞争的重要手段。包括‘二选一’、‘大数据杀熟’、‘平台屏蔽封禁’等行为将会成为执法部门关注的重点。”

她认为,相关企业在整改同时,可以借机全面梳理业务条线中的竞争合规风险领域,制定或优化反垄断合规制度。

2020年,市监局曾出台《经营者反垄断合规指南》,倡导企业建立反垄断合规体系,反垄断合规制度对于在强监管环境下的企业经营管理将发挥更重要的作用。

周律师建议说,企业应在合规制度中主动制定配合和应对监管部门调查的制度,以此确保企业在调查发生时按照法律要求履行配合义务、避免程序违法风险,同时有效地在应对调查过程中提出主张、抗辩等。

不过,周律师也观察到互联网领域的竞争问题分析通常比较复杂,一些更为复杂的竞争法问题尚存在争议。对于这些问题,虽然目前各国对监管思路和强度尚有不同理解和做法,但加强监管已经成为诸多管辖区的主流共识。她因此建议大型平台公司密切关注和跟进了解,并根据监管要求及时调整业务策略。

而企业在制定或优化其反垄断合规制度时,律师将起到巨大作用。

自从《平台反垄断指南》出台后,许蓉蓉律师表示律所接到很多客户的咨询。律师正积极帮助企业做内审,并从合规方面提供相关意见。

周越律师则认为,律师在反垄断调查程序中,可以为保障企业的程序性权利、协助企业梳理调查中涉及的法律和事实问题、提出有关主张和抗辩等提供帮助。

“反垄断调查程序中涉及大量复杂的事实和法律问题,律师的尽早参与可以为企业最小化损失和风险、争取最好的案件结果等提供有益的支持和协助。”

—周越,年利达律师事务所

“反垄断调查程序中涉及大量复杂的事实和法律问题,同时法律规定有效果抗辩、正当理由抗辩,以及宽大、豁免、中止调查等制度,律师的尽早参与可以为企业最小化损失和风险、争取最好的案件结果等提供有益的支持和协助。”周律师说。

下一步:反垄断并购和诉讼

阿里巴巴第一案之后,对电商巨头的反垄断调查和执法接踵而来。

4月底,市场传出国家反垄断机构准备对腾讯处以至少100亿元人民币罚款的消息,原因为腾讯过往的收购和投资未按正常申报程序进行反垄断审批;而不久前,市监局决定立案调查美团实施“二选一”等垄断行为。

反垄断也不止于巨头。地方机关方面,上海市市场监督管理局在4月12日认定英文外卖平台上海食派士滥用市场支配地位,向其发布《行政处罚决定书》,并处以116.86万元人民币的罚款。

随着《反垄断法》修改、加强反垄断执法力量和资源等措施落地,昭胜律师事务所合伙人曹微律师告诉ALB,执法机关将更加积极有为,中国各方面的反垄断执法将更加活跃。

下一步,国家监管机构会着重于反垄断并购调查和优化反垄断诉讼制度。

曹律师指出,平台经济反垄断不仅限于滥用市场支配地位,还涉及并购控制和垄断协议等其他法律制度。她解释道,对平台经济最早采取的反垄断执法措施,就是对未依法申报的互联网行业并购交易作出的处罚。目前对存量未依法申报交易的调查处理仍在继续,市监局同时也在深入审查一些新的互联网行业投资并购交易。

“对于存在竞争问题的并购交易,执法机关将采取附加限制性条件乃至禁止交易实施等措施。”

—曹微,昭胜律师事务所

"我们预计经营者集中审查将在防止资本无序扩张、预防市场过度集中或者发生结构性风险等方面发挥关键作用。"曹律师说。“对于存在竞争问题的并购交易,执法机关将采取附加限制性条件乃至禁止交易实施等措施,中国的并购审查也将有机会在案件审查中处理各国竞争执法机构均普遍关注的数据收集和滥用、平台的捆绑和自我优待等问题。”

另外,她指出随着《反垄断法》修改推进,违法实施经营者集中申报的法律后果大概率将被明显提高,对于各行业投资并购交易,中国经营者集中审查对交易时间表乃至确定性的影响将更加凸显。

从反垄断诉讼的角度来看,许蓉蓉律师预计反垄断诉讼将会成为一个趋势,消费者及各个利益相关者逐渐意识到反垄断法将保护他们的利益。

而在曹微律师看来,近年来最高人民法院已经通过设立知识产权法院和法庭、实施“飞跃上诉制度”等改革措施,优化了反垄断诉讼的程序和制度。她表示,“最高人民法院也可能制定新的反垄断司法解释,为降低原告举证责任和难度等提供制度保障。”

曹律师强调,最高院已将反垄断和反不正当竞争诉讼作为今年和今后一个时期的工作重点,并预计如京东天猫“二选一”反垄断诉讼、抖音诉腾讯滥用市场支配地位实施"屏蔽封禁"等已在司法程序中的案件,将对行业产生重大影响和指标意义。

“深化平台经济反垄断将进一步鼓励受到垄断行为损害的经营者通过民事诉讼渠道主张权利,将有机会推动法院进一步明晰《反垄断法》的解释和适用规则。” 她总结道。


Antitrust Scrutiny

China is increasing oversight and enforcement of anti-monopoly legislation, in a trend that could have a significant impact on the country’s platform economy.

 

China’s State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) recently fined e-commerce giant Alibaba a record 18.2 billion yuan ($2.75 billion) for violating the antitrust law. It also issued administrative guidance requiring the tech giant to conduct a comprehensive rectification and submit self-inspection reports for three consecutive years.

The watchdog said that the hefty fine was imposed because Alibaba abused its dominant position in the online retail service market and implemented “exclusive dealing agreements” that restricted vendors on its platform from opening e-shops or participating in marketing campaigns on competitors’ platforms. By taking these steps, the group strengthened its market power and gained an unfair competitive advantage, SAMR noted.

“We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination,” Alibaba said in a statement. “To serve its responsibility to society, Alibaba will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen its compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The penalty was China's largest fine for an antitrust violation. In 2015, Qualcomm, a U.S. chipmaker, paid $975 million to Chinese authorities to end an antitrust investigation into its patent licensing practices.

Considered the first case after antitrust guidelines focused on China’s digital platform companies took effect, Alibaba’s experience may shed some light on how future antitrust investigation may transpire moving forward.

Janet Hui, partner of JunHe, tells ALB that the Alibaba case provides clues on how to define dominant position and anti-competitive practices.

The case demonstrated that China’s antitrust investigations will not only target foreign firms but also domestic players. Those who break the law will face administrative penalties, Hui says.

At the same time, the decision is of “high standard”, as it mentioned the technical issues and included a comprehensive economic analysis. It also laid out specific details of the misconduct and defenses, which made for great progress in transparency.

Lastly, “it acts as a precedent for business operators and clarifies some principles of law and how to comply with the law,” Hui notes.

The administrative guidance could serve as a reference for other companies. Other online platform companies can conduct self-inspections on their antitrust compliance based on the administrative guidance and the Antitrust Guidelines for the Platform Economy and implement measures based on the inspection results.

Fay Zhou, an antitrust and foreign investment partner at Linklaters, says that the administrative guidance proposes to “increase access to data, applications and payment systems on the platform and promote cross-platform connectivity and operations.” This provides offer guidance for the entire industry and have structural impact on the competitive landscape and business model of China’s platform economy.

SELF-INSPECTION

The record fine on Alibaba sent a chilling message to other e-commerce giants and prompted them to conduct self-inspections to avoid being seen to be undertaking monopolistic practices such as exclusive dealing agreements, big data discrimination or blocking links to other platforms.

“Internet firms need to reshape their business models, define which market they belong to, and inspect their technologies. If they have been involved in monopolistic behaviour, their business model and profitability could be significantly affected.”

—Janet Hui, JunHe

Speaking of the significance of the Alibaba case to e-commerce platform operators, Hui says Internet firms need to reshape their business models, define which market they belong to, and inspect their technologies. If they have been involved in monopolistic behaviour, their business model and profitability could be significantly affected.

“However, it’s an opportunity for smaller internet platforms,” says Hui. Without practices such as exclusive dealing agreements, more vendors will be able to join smaller platforms and make them more competitive. Hence, she says, ensure compliance with antitrust legislation is urgently needed and will provide for a fairer competitive environment.

Linklaters’ Zhou adds that the SAMR, the Cyberspace Administration of China and the State Taxation Administration recently ordered 34 companies to conduct self-inspections within one month in accordance with China’s antitrust law and make public commitments to abide by the law. This suggests regulators intend to use the new rules and penalties to rectify the industry and solve anti-competitive issues that have long existed in China’s platform economy sector.

"With a new regulatory landscape and stronger regulation as the new normal, internet companies should adjust their mentality and strategy and treat antitrust compliance as the main focus of their operation management as well as risk prevention and control," says Zhou.

"Antitrust enforcement will become a norm and an important tool for regulating the industry and promoting market competition, as China’s platform economy has entered a new stage of development. Moving forward, regulators will pay close attention to monopolistic practices such as 'choosing one from two', ' big data discrimination’ and 'blocking links from other platforms', among others,” she continues.

She advises companies, when conducting the rectification, should comprehensively assess antitrust risks in their business and establish or optimize antitrust compliance programs.

In 2020, the SAMR rolled out the Anti-Monopoly Compliance Guidance for Business Operators to urge companies to establish antitrust compliance programs. With regulation tightening up, such programs are expected to play a more important role in business operations.

Zhou suggests companies take the initiative to develop a compliance program that can

coordinate and deal with investigators to make sure they cooperate and fulfil their legal obligations. Such programs also help avoid risks of procedural violations and more effectively put forward claims and defenses during investigations.

Meanwhile, Zhou also says that it is usually complicated to analyse antitrust issues in the Internet sector, and some of the competition laws are still controversial. Although different countries understand and implement regulations differently, the general consensus is to strengthen regulations, including in countries like the U.S. She suggests large platform operators should keep an eye on the latest developments and adjust their business strategy to match regulatory requirements.

When companies develop and optimize an antitrust compliance program, lawyers can be a great help.

Since regulators issued the antitrust guidelines on the country's platform economy, Hui says JunHe has received queries from many clients to conduct internal audits and seek legal advice on compliance.

Meanwhile, Zhou believes lawyers can help companies protect their procedural rights, understand the legal and factual issues in an investigation, and make claims and defenses during antitrust investigations.

“An antitrust investigation involves a lot of complicated factual and legal issues. Lawyers should take up a case as soon as possible to help companies minimize their losses and risks and provide effective support to strive for the best outcome for their clients.”

—Fay Zhou, Linklaters

“An antitrust investigation involves a lot of complicated factual and legal issues. Effective defense, just cause defense, as well as leniency, exemptions, and suspension of investigation are all allowed by the law. Lawyers should take up a case as soon as possible to help companies minimize their losses and risks and provide effective support to strive for the best outcome for their clients,” she adds.

TARGETING M&A

Other antitrust investigations and enforcement actions are likely to come in the wake of the record-breaking Alibaba fine.

In late April, state antitrust regulators were reportedly planning to fine Tencent at least 10 billion yuan for not properly reporting past acquisitions and investments for antitrust reviews. The SMAR has also initiated an investigation into Meituan for implementing an "exclusive dealing agreement."

And it is not only tech giants that could take a hit. At the local level, the Shanghai Municipal Administration for Market Regulation ruled that English-language food delivery app Sherpa’s had abused its market dominance and slapped a 1.16 million yuan fine on the Shanghai-based company.

As regulators have revised China’s antitrust law and implemented measures to strengthen antitrust enforcement, Vivian Cao, partner at Zhao Sheng Law Firm, tells ALB that law enforcement agencies will be more proactive and expects more antitrust enforcement in many sectors.

Looking ahead, state regulators are expected to focus more on launching antitrust investigations in merger and acquisition (M&A) deals and optimizing antitrust litigation.

Cao says monopolistic practices in the platform economy sector are not limited to abusing market dominance, but also implementing merger control and monopoly agreements. She explains that the earliest antitrust enforcement measures taken against the platform economy players were imposing penalties for not properly reporting M&A deals in the Internet industry. Regulators are still investigating deals that have not been properly reported, and the SAMR is looking into the latest investment and M&A transactions in the Internet industry.

“For M&A deals that see anti-competitive issues, regulators might impose additional restrictive conditions or even ban the transaction.”

—Vivian Cao, Zhao Sheng Law Firm

“We expect the review of concentrations of business operators will play a key role in containing the disorderly expansion of the capital and preventing high market concentration or structural risks,” says Cao. “For M&A deals that see anti-competitive issues, regulators might impose additional restrictive conditions or even ban the transaction. The antitrust review of M&A deals in China may be able to address issues that are of general concern in other countries, such as data collection and misuse, platform bundling, and self-preferencing.”

As the antitrust law has been further refined, Cao points out that it will be more likely to take in more illegal concentrations of business operators. For investment and M&A deals in various industries, the review of concentrations of business operators will have a more prominent impact on the transaction schedule and even the feasibility of deals.

Meanwhile, JunHe’s Hui expects to see more antitrust litigation as consumers and stakeholders come to realise that the antitrust law protects their interests.

Cao from Zhao Sheng notes that in recent years, the Supreme People's Court has improved the procedures and systems of antitrust litigation through measures such as setting up intellectual property courts and adopting a leapfrog appeal system. “The Supreme People's Court might roll out new judicial interpretation of the antitrust law in order to provide institutional protection to reduce the burden and difficulty to present evidence for the plaintiff,” she says.

She emphasizes that antitrust and unfair competition litigations have become a major task for the Supreme Court’s work this year and beyond. Cases such as JD.com suing Tmall for implementing an exclusive dealing agreement and Douyin suing Tencent for abusing its market dominance that are already in judicial proceedings are expected to have a great impact on the industry.

“Deepening antitrust enforcement in the platform economy sector will encourage business operators whose interests have been harmed by monopolistic practices to protect their rights through civil litigation,” she says. “This will prompt the court to further clarify the interpretation and application of the antitrust law.”

 

To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com.