(Adds quote from court order in paragraph 5)
By Aditya Kalra and Abhirup Roy
NEW DELHI, June 11 (Reuters) – An Indian court dismissed pleas on Friday by Amazon.com Inc and Walmart‘s Flipkart to quash an antitrust investigation into the business practices of the U.S. firms, dealing them a blow in their key growth market.
The Competition Commission of India (CCI) announced its investigation in January 2020 after a trader group’s complaint accused the firms of promoting some “preferred sellers” and hurting business for smaller sellers.
A court had put the investigation on hold last year after Amazon and Flipkart challenged it saying the CCI had no evidence the e-commerce giants were harming competition.
On Friday, Justice P.S. Dinesh Kumar of the high court in the southern state of Karnataka said he was dismissing the petitions by Amazon and Flipkart, and refused them any further relief.
“It would be unwise to prejudge the issues … at this stage and scuttle the investigation,” Kumar wrote in his 51-page order.
Amazon said it would review the order “carefully and then decide on the next steps”. Flipkart did not immediately respond.
Abir Roy, a lawyer for the Indian trader group Delhi Vyapar Mahasangh, told Reuters the judge’s decision effectively paves the way to restart the investigation, which has been on hold since February 2020.
However, the companies are likely to appeal against the verdict.
When the competition watchdog ordered its investigation, it listed four alleged anti-competitive practices. These were exclusive launches of mobile phones by the e-commerce firms, promoting preferred sellers on their websites, deep discounting practices and prioritising some seller listings over others.
The CCI investigation will be the latest setback for the firms, which have also battled tougher foreign investment rules, and faced accusations for years from brick-and-mortar retailers about circumventing Indian law by creating complex business structures.
In February, a Reuters investigation http://reut.rs/2OCOT2W based on internal Amazon documents showed the U.S. firm for years had helped a small number of sellers prosper on its platform in India, giving them discounted fees and helping one cut special deals with big tech firms.
As the competition watchdog sought to restart the probe, it told the Karnataka court in March https://www.reuters.com/article/us-amazon-com-india-idUSKBN2BB1UF the Reuters report corroborated evidence it had received against Amazon.
In response, the company, which has said it “does not give preferential treatment to any seller”, told the court https://www.reuters.com/world/india/amazon-tells-indian-court-reuters-story-is-no-reason-resume-antitrust-probe-2021-04-15 it disagreed with the Reuters report, which should not be considered evidence. (Reporting by Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Abhirup Roy; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Clarence Fernandez and David Evans)