The European Commission said it was evaluating the legality of clauses that Amazon had used with European publishers, which required them to inform the e-commerce giant of more favorable terms for books that were offered to other digital retailers.
LONDON — European regulators announced an antitrust investigation Thursday into whether Amazon used its dominant position there in the e-books market to favor its own products over those of rivals.
The European Commission said it was studying the legality of clauses Amazon had used with European publishers, which required them to tell the e-commerce giant of more favorable terms for books offered to other digital retailers.
The announcement is the latest hurdle facing U.S. technology companies in Europe. Policymakers there in recent years have pursued tax, antitrust and other investigations into Apple, Google and Facebook.
Amazon’s tax practices in Luxembourg, home to its European headquarters, are the subject of a separate investigation.
The commission, the executive arm of the European Union, is also pursuing an antitrust investigation into whether large tech companies have impeded competition in the region’s online-shopping industry.
The European authorities said the clauses being evaluated in the e-books investigation might have made it more difficult for Amazon’s rivals to offer lower prices. Amazon has been estimated to sell about eight out of every 10 e-books in Britain. In Germany, the percentage is just under half. In the United States, Amazon has an estimated two-thirds of the e-book market.
Antitrust officials added, however, that the opening of the inquiry didn’t yet indicate Amazon had broken competition laws.
“Amazon has developed a successful business that offers consumers a comprehensive service,” Europe’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, said Thursday in a statement. “It is my duty to make sure that Amazon’s arrangements with publishers are not harmful to consumers, by preventing other e-book distributors from innovating and competing effectively with Amazon.”
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In a statement, Amazon said it was “confident that our agreements with publishers are legal and in the best interests of readers.” The company said it would “cooperate fully during this process.”
The investigation is at an early stage and still could be dropped or end in a settlement without a formal finding of wrongdoing. If formal charges are brought and Amazon fails to successfully rebut those findings, it could face a fine of as much as 10 percent of its most recent annual global sales.
The largest single fine levied by the commission, the EU’s executive body, is 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) in 2009 against Intel for abusing its dominance of the computer-chip market. But the accumulated penalties paid by Microsoft were even higher, totaling almost 2 billion euros ($2.3 billion) in European fines over a decade.
The e-books investigation Amazon now faces in Europe contrasts with what the company has experienced in the United States. Amazon introduced the Kindle, the first truly popular electronic reader, in 2007. When Apple introduced the iPad three years later, publishers tried to use the new device as leverage against Amazon.
The result was an antitrust price-fixing suit the Justice Department filed against five of the top publishing houses and Apple. The publishers settled and Apple lost.
Apple is appealing the antitrust case, and a hearing in New York last December seemed to show that two of the three judges might be sympathetic to its arguments. A ruling is expected shortly.
Penguin Random House, the largest book publisher, is negotiating new terms with Amazon; efforts at a deal have yielded little.
Negotiations between Amazon and another publisher, Hachette, produced a monthslong battle last year that sent authors to the barricades and inspired abundant discussion about whether Amazon was saving the world of reading or ruining it.
The European Commission said Thursday the e-books investigation was not the result of a formal complaint.
“The in-depth investigation launched today was at the commission’s own initiative,” said spokesman Ricardo Cardoso. “It concerns contract clauses that seem to shield Amazon from competition from other e-book distributors, including clauses granting it rights to be informed of more favorable or alternative terms offered to its competitors and rights to terms that are similar or at least as good.”