India to speed up Amazon and Flipkart antitrust probe amid rising tension with big tech

Move comes as major US technology companies are at loggerheads with Indian government over issues such as data privacy bills

(FILES) This file photo taken on March 30, 2020 shows the logo of US online retail giant Amazon at the distribution center in Staten Island. US online retail giant Amazon broke into French soccer by sharing the broadcasting of Ligue 1 with Canal+, with an annual fee of 663 million euros for the clubs until 2024, a source close to the proceedings said, on June 11, 2021. / AFP / Angela Weiss

India's antitrust watchdog plans to expedite a restarted probe into allegations of anti-competitive behaviour at Amazon and Walmart's Flipkart as it intensifies scrutiny of big tech companies, two sources said.

The comments come as major US technology companies, including Twitter and Facebook, are at loggerheads with the government over issues such as data privacy bills and policies that some industry executives have termed protectionist.

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) initiated a probe in January last year on the basis of a complaint alleging Amazon and Flipkart promoted select sellers on their e-commerce platforms and that deep discounts stifled competition.

The companies have denied wrongdoing.

Near immediate legal challenges from the pair stalled the probe for over a year until a court last week allowed it to resume, having dismissed arguments that the commission lacked evidence.

Though Amazon and Flipkart are likely to appeal, the commission plans to demand information from them related to the allegations "as quickly as possible", a source said, and added that the investigation "will be expedited".

Such investigations in India typically take months to complete.

Amazon declined to comment. Flipkart and the commission did not respond to requests for comment.

The commission is speeding up all cases involving big technology firms, including assigning additional officers for some cases and working to more stringent internal deadlines, sources familiar with the watchdog said.

"Cases involving digital firms are getting a priority at CCI as they can have significant impact on the economy and Indian start-ups," a source said.

Last year, the commission began reviewing allegations of Google abusing the position of its Android operating system in the smart TV market and is likely to soon order a comprehensive antitrust investigation, according to the sources.

Google declined to comment.

Such a probe would be the third against Google, with the Alphabet unit already battling cases relating to Android as well as its payments app.

The commission is also investigating practices at MakeMyTrip and privacy policy changes at Facebook's WhatsApp.

The probe into Amazon and Flipkart is restarting at a time when both are battling accusations from offline retailers that their complex business structures allow them to circumvent foreign investment rules for e-commerce.

In February, a Reuters investigation based on Amazon documents showed the e-retailer for years gave preferential treatment to a small group of sellers on its Indian platform. While arguing to restart the probe, the commission told a court in Karnataka state that the Reuters report corroborated evidence.

Amazon, which has said it "does not give preferential treatment to any seller", told the court it disagreed with the report.

The antitrust body will examine the report and could use it as part of its investigation, a source said.

"The CCI's plan to move faster on such cases is in line with other antitrust regulators globally that are investigating digital markets like e-commerce and online search, which are dynamic and evolving fast," said an Indian antitrust lawyer who represents tech companies.

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