The European Antitrust Review 2015 Section 4: Country chapters

Netherlands: Authority for Consumers and Markets

Chris Fonteijn

Chairman of the board of the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets

The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) was created on 1 April 2013 through the consolidation of the Netherlands Consumer Authority (CA), the Netherlands Independent Post and Telecommunication Authority (OPTA) and the Netherlands Competition Authority (NMa). The ACM builds on the work of its predecessors but wishes to be more than just the sum of its parts. By bringing together the powers and expertise of the three regulators, the ACM aims for a higher level of effectiveness and efficiency.

The ACM stimulates competition and regulates markets in a way that optimises the outcome for consumers. It aims to encourage the development of markets in which consumers have an actual choice and in which businesses can compete freely for the favour of consumers. The desired result is sustainable welfare growth in the broader sense of the word. This includes welfare growth as a result of financial and qualitative effects for consumers in the short-run and in the long-run.

The ACM’s work includes general competition oversight, protection of consumer rights (in non-financial industries) and regulation of the energy, telecommunication, postal services and transport markets (or parts thereof). Given these diverse fields and the ACM’s limited resources, choices need to be made about which market and consumer problems the ACM wishes to tackle. Since 1 April 2013, the ACM has been working on its own set of (combined) priorities for competition-related issues, as well as for sector-specific regulation, and for the protection of consumer rights. The main criteria the ACM applies when making these choices are the harm inflicted on consumers, the public interest at stake and whether the ACM is able to take action effectively.

More situations where independence is of great importance are likely to arise as government increasingly pushes private sector regulation to solve public interest issues through cross-sector agreements, rather than using more expensive public regulation. This trend requires an innovative perspective from the agency and, above all, an independent approach. In this regard, the ACM has produced a guide to assist parties who want to launch cooperative sustainable initiatives.

Enforcement is one of the ACM’s core tasks; however, it does not want to enforce just for the sake of enforcement. The impact of our actions is central – that is why the ACM looks at the broader context when carrying out its statutory tasks. The ACM’s objective is to solve market and consumer problems, while at the same time taking into account the relevant context and market structure. The ACM chooses the instrument (or combination of instruments) that is most likely to offer a permanent solution to these problems; a commitment decision is one of these instruments. In 2013, for example, the ACM accepted a commitment from the three major mobile-telecommunication providers in the Netherlands, to refrain from making public statements about future market behaviour in order to avoid any risk of illegal collusive behaviour.

Accountability to the general public has become a core element of regulatory governance. It therefore touches on all of our mandates. As a result, the ACM devotes considerable time to consulting on issues concerning its future priorities, making use of round-table events and social media to gather information and encourage dialogue between the authority and stakeholders.

At the beginning of 2014, the ACM launched an online consultation of its strategic agenda and future sectoral priorities using social media. Within this consultation, the ACM set out six strategic themes that it will focus on for the period 2014–2015, and opened up this agenda for discussion with businesses and consumers. Themes selected for the 2014–2015 agenda include:

  • online consumers;
  • willingness to invest in energy networks and telecom networks;
  • government tenders;
  • health-care consumers;
  • switching barriers in energy and health care; and
  • entry in the banking industry.

The discussion on the final theme, ‘entry in the banking industry’, will be launched in September 2014 as the ACM was still carrying out a study on this topic at the time of the online consultation.

Online consumers

The ACM wants consumers to benefit from online developments, while being able to browse online safely. In addition, consumers should have the opportunity to decide for themselves what will happen with their personal details. In achieving these ambitions, service providers, the ACM and consumers each play important roles. The ACM keeps a close watch on the development of the internet as a sales channel; it is attentive to anti-competitive risks that could impede the opportunities and options of businesses and consumers.

Willingness to invest in energy networks and telecom networks

The ACM encourages efficient and optimal investments in energy and telecom networks. In the energy market, the ACM requires network operators to ensure their energy networks are secure at an affordable price. In its regulation of the telecommunications market, the ACM aims to stimulate the further rollout of next-generation access networks. Our interventions influence the investment decisions of energy network operators and telecommunication companies.

Government tenders

The ACM is alert to indications of unfair competition in government tenders. It can then examine the situation and fine the companies and individuals involved where they have violated competition rules. The ACM has advice for government organisations to prevent collusion among bidders and ensuring more bidders get a fair chance and government organisations can get the best possible outcome from their tender procedure.

Health-care consumers

As spending on health care in the Netherlands accounts for 12 per cent of the GDP, public attention to health care is high. The ACM’s goal is to offer consumers the best opportunities and options in health care by taking action against impediments to competition. The ACM believes it is important that health-care providers have enough room for cooperation. However, the ACM will take action in situations where collaborations do not serve the interests of consumers but of the health-care providers themselves, thereby leading to harmful effects.

Switching barriers in energy and health care

The ACM aims to eliminate switching barriers (actual and perceived) faced by consumers, to stimulate consumers to look for the best offer, particularly in markets where competition could still use a boost, such as the health insurance and energy markets.

This has been the ACM’s first experience using this new type of online consultation. The results vary per theme and will be used to determine the ACM’s approach on these issues. The strength of this modern form of consultation lies in its interactive character. Through the consultation on its agenda, the ACM not only encourages an online dialogue between stakeholders and the ACM, but also among stakeholders. The next time we engage in a dialogue with our stakeholders through an online consultation, we will be able to do so more effectively, using the experience we have gained from this process.

The ACM will also remain active in its other sectors of oversight. It will not hesitate to shift its attention toward more pressing issues if necessary. Problems the ACM identifies are dealt with in an integrated manner as far as possible, thereby either adopting an ACM-wide thematic, sector-based or chain-based approach.

Consumers benefit directly from the ACM’s oversight activities, as follows from the ACM’s very first annual report presented in March 2014. In 2013, these benefits amounted to €1.85 billion, which is €300 per household in the Netherlands. The ACM is a learning organisation and will continue to promote opportunities and options for businesses and consumers in the targeted sectors in 2014.

Chairman of the board of the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets

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