On January 23, 2018, the European Court of Justice (CoJ) handed down an interesting judgment in the Hoffman-La Roche / Novartis case (C-179/16). For the first time, the CoJ takes a stance on an emerging hot topic in EU antitrust law: disparagement – or, in more trendy terms, fake news. And the CoJ’s message is clear: the EU will show no mercy for businesses engaging in such practices.

In our view, the judgment conveys three key messages:

  • Disparagement can come in many forms and shapes. The Hoffmann – La Roche / Novartis case arguably features a rather unconventional and somewhat counterintuitive disparagement scenario, that is, one where the disparaged party is also part of the collusion. As such, this case illustrates the huge variety of scenarios that can fit under the header ‘disparagement.’ However, that is not to say that any form of criticism towards your competitors will get you in trouble. In practice, all cases to date deal with well-organized disparagement campaigns. Thus, a few negative comments in passing are unlikely to give rise to an investigation.
  • Disparagement goes beyond fake news, at least in certain sectors. As noted above, the concept of disparagement extends beyond the dissemination of incorrect information. The dissemination of correct information, but in a partial way, may also raise issues, especially when it impacts an economic sector that is highly risk-adverse. In this regard, we note that most precedents on disparagement – if not all – featured misleading health claims. It remains to be seen whether a similar theory of harm could be argued in relation to less sensitive sectors or in relation to practices unrelated to human health.
  • If prosecuted under Article 101 TFEU, effects do not need to be proven since disparagement can be a “by object” infringement. As a result, failed disparagement strategies may also trigger antitrust enforcement.

Want to learn more about the judgment? Check out our briefing.

Steptoe partners Jonathan B. Sallet, Anthony J. LaRocca & Yves Botteman authored an article titled “Turning The Corner: The Internet Of (Moving) Things” for Competition Policy International. The article explores the intersection between the development of the Internet of Things and competition law, both from a US and a EU perspective. The article is available here.