DOJ Goes After Anti-Competitive E-Commerce

Cites Price-Fixing by Users of Amazon Marketplace

WASHINGTON — Attention Internet service and content providers: The Justice Department has leveled its first charge related to electronic-commerce price fixing.

And the DOJ said that both it and the Federal Bureau of Investigations are committed to pursuing anti-competitive conduct online, including algorithms that serve anti-competitive conduct.

The DOJ said a marketer of posters, prints and other objects sold on the Amazon Marketplace has agreed to pay a $20,000 criminal fine, subject to court approval of the plea deal, which includes helping the department with its investigation of co-conspirators in the price-fixing scheme.

“Today’s announcement represents the division’s first criminal prosecution against a conspiracy specifically targeting e-commerce,” Bill Baer, assistant attorney general and head of the antitrust division, said in announcing the plea bargain. “We will not tolerate anticompetitive conduct, whether it occurs in a smoke-filled room or over the Internet using complex pricing algorithms. American consumers have the right to a free and fair marketplace online, as well as in brick and mortar businesses.”

Added Special Agent David J. Johnson of the FBI’s San Francisco field office, “These charges demonstrate our continued commitment to investigate and prosecute individuals and organizations seeking to victimize online consumers through illegal anticompetitive conduct.” The San Francisco office has been heading the investigation.

According to the charge, "the defendant and his co-conspirators adopted specific pricing algorithms for the sale of certain posters with the goal of coordinating changes to their respective prices and wrote computer code that instructed algorithm-based software to set prices in conformity with this agreement."