For violation of consumers’ rights protected by the Codice del Consumo and the e-commerce law, on the 6th of March 2012 the Italian Antitrust Authority (Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato), invoking art. 27 of the Italian Codice del Consumo (provision against unfair commercial practices), ordered the blackout of twelve websites of the French online fashion shop entitled Private Outlet.

Such measure was taken at the end of a preliminary proceeding commenced by the Antitrust Authority, upon receipt of several complaints from consumers claiming misconduct perpetrated by Private Outlet in the execution of e-commerce contracts, such as misleading information about the availability of products, undelivered goods or delivery of different ones, delay and falsification of delivery notices. According to the consumers’ complaints, Private Outlet did not reply to their claims, but worse refused to return the price paid in advance for products never delivered or to substitute the defective products.

After the due summary investigation, to which the defendant, although informed, did not participate, the Authority deemed the collected elements sufficient to issue an interim injunction, ordering the French company to immediately desist its e-commerce in Italy. As enforcement of such injunction order, a special department for the Protection of Markets of Guardia di Finanza was appointed by the Authority to promptly block any access in the Italian territory to the Private Outlet’s websites.

This is the first time that the Italian Antitrust Authority imposed an order to blackout a website.

The reactions have been highly controversial. On the one hand it has been welcomed as an improvement of efficiency in the e-commerce consumers’ protection. On the other hand it has been strongly criticised as an interim measure that exceeds the Antitrust Authority’s competence and represents an abuse of power.

More recently, based on supplementary information and documentation filed by Private Outlet to the Italian Antitrust Authority demonstrating that the above-mentioned deficiencies were only exceptional, the Authority retracted its decision, lifting the web-site block and ordering the publication on Private Outlet’s web-sites of a message informing the consumers of the procedure pending before the Authority. The latter will monitor the conduct of Private Outlet who undertook for the future to fully comply with the rules of the Italian Codice del Consumo.

E-commerce has led to challenging discussions concerning effective protections to purveyors and users. The authorities are currently devising and testing new solutions in order to adapt the juridical instruments provided by law to the internet environment.

The blackout order delivered by the Italian Antitrust Authority is a significant example thereof. This provisional measure -although reversed- is indeed another of a growing list of measures to bring rule to the chaotic web-world.

Companies operating via internet are no longer in a no-man’s land, but more and more are required to comply with the same obligations regulating the “real world”.

Barbara Sartori
Anna Bonan