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From Antitrust Law Daily, April 6, 2015

Former exec of online poster seller to settle first charge in new U.S. probe

By Jeffrey May, J.D.

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division's first criminal prosecution against a conspiracy specifically targeting e-commerce was filed today in the federal district court in San Francisco. The one-count felony charge names David Topkins, a former executive of an unnamed, e-commerce seller of posters, prints, and framed art. According to the charge, Topkins and his co-conspirators fixed the prices of certain posters sold online through Amazon.com, Inc.’s Amazon Marketplace from around September 2013 until about January 2014 (U.S. v. Topkins, Criminal No. CR 15 201).

Topkins has agreed to plead guilty for conspiring to fix the prices of posters sold online and to pay a $20,000 criminal fine. The defendant also has agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into price fixing in the online wall décor industry. The plea agreement is subject to court approval.

According to the court filing, the conspirators used commercially-available algorithm-based pricing software to set the prices of posters sold on Amazon. The software collects competitor pricing information for a specific product and applies certain pricing rules. Topkins, who was the director of the unidentified company's “Trend Division,” wrote computer code for the company that instructed the software to set prices in conformity with the price fixing agreement. Topkins and his co-conspirators also monitored prices and sales of the agreed-upon posters, according to the government.

“We will not tolerate anticompetitive conduct, whether it occurs in a smoke-filled room or over the Internet using complex pricing algorithms,” Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, said in announcing the action. “American consumers have the right to a free and fair marketplace online, as well as in brick and mortar businesses.”

Companies: Amazon.com, Inc.

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