Amazon’s ‘price parity’ clause attracts attention of German antitrust regulator

Amazon(s amzn) isn’t having much luck in Germany at the moment. Just one week ago, it found itself accused of employing a security company with neo-fascist links at its distribution centers there (it sacked the company in question quite quickly) and now it’s attracted the attention of the country’s antitrust authorities.

The Bundeskartellamt (Federal Cartel Office) is looking into complaints about the “price parity clause” that Amazon imposes on its third-party merchants. The clause forbids the merchants from selling goods they sell on Amazon cheaper elsewhere online, including on eBay(s ebay) and through their own sites.

“Amazon’s price parity clause, under which sellers are deprived of their freedom to sell a product offered through Amazon cheaper on another internet sales channel, could violate the general ban on cartels,” Bundeskartellamt president Andreas Mundt said in a statement.

“This applies in particular if the restriction of the sellers’ freedom to determine prices also restricts competition between the different internet marketplaces. Such a restraint of competition seems likely as, under normal circumstances, sellers have an interest in offering their products on several internet marketplaces.”

The authorities have identified two particular problems with this setup: first, that it makes it very hard for new marketplaces to challenge Amazon, and second, that Amazon can therefore charge higher seller fees than necessary, hurting the consumer.

To find out more, the Bundeskartellamt is now surveying 2,400 third-party Amazon merchants. If this confirms what it suspects, it will very likely force Amazon to remove the price parity clause from its terms in Germany.

This is hardly the first time that people have complained about Amazon’s price parity clause, which was introduced a few years ago. In the UK, the Office of Fair Trading said in 2011 that it was looking into complaints about the clause as applied to e-books, but it didn’t open a formal investigation. Apple(s aapl)’s EU e-book antitrust inquiry also had to do with a similar clause, which the European Commission forced it to scrap.

We have asked Amazon for comment, and will add it in if and when it arrives.