The UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will soon acquire new EU-derived powers allowing it to seize control of rogue traders' eBay and Amazon accounts, and even their entire websites, if it thinks "consumer interests" might be being harmed.
New legal amendments coming into force in June will let the CMA apply for "online interface orders", giving it a wide range of potential measures over business websites and accounts on large platforms.
People and companies targeted by the new orders, a creation of a new EU consumer protection regulation, could be forced to delete their websites or parts of them, disable or restrict access to them, "display a warning to consumers", or even transfer an entire domain name into the CMA's control.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) confirmed to The Register that the new powers are entering UK law as a result of changes made at EU level. The new Consumer Protection (Enforcement) (Amendment etc.) Regulations 2020 extend competition regulators' powers over so-called "online interfaces".
As defined in the new regs, which come into force on 2 June, "online platform" means "any software, including a website, part of a website or an application, that is operated by or on behalf of a trader, and which serves to give consumers access to the trader's goods and services."
To safeguard the public from misuse of the new powers, the CMA will have to apply to a court and convince a judge that there is no other way to stop a rogue trader apart from seizure and/or deletion of their website or online sales accounts.
Neil Brown, tech lawyer behind firm decoded.legal, told The Register: "Given the current debates about the imposition of a nebulous 'duty of care' on platforms, it's pleasing to see an approach centred on judicial oversight, in the form of a court order. This should give confidence to a platform on the receiving end of one of these orders that the action they are being compelled to take has received a reasonable degree of independent scrutiny."
He added: "Sod knows how they came up with the term 'online interface', though."
A BEIS spokesman told The Register: "Consumers should be able to trust online markets, and this new unparalleled power will strengthen protection by allowing the CMA to remove online content when it threatens consumers' interests. We will work closely with industry and regulators to ensure the new powers remain proportionate and effective."
Website seizure powers exist elsewhere in the world, most notably in America. Whatever safeguards exist over there didn't stop the Department of Homeland Security from helping itself to the dot-com domain of a Brighton-based ad agency earlier this year. Despite a department employee admitting it was a cockup over mistaken identity, the domain was only returned to its rightful owners after the ad agency agreed to sign a waiver promising not to sue for damages.
Hopefully the UK system's safeguards will amount to more than a judicial rubber stamp. ®