by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, May 22 (Xinhua) -- Italian competition regulators this week opened a probe into the online gaming practices of a trio of U.S. Internet giants, the latest in a series of confrontations with some of the world's most powerful and wealthy online companies.
The latest investigation is into so-called "freemium" games -- these are computer or mobile device games that include an option to purchase additional in-game capabilities for a fee. The investigation from Italy's antitrust authority will look into whether gamers were adequately notified of the fee; the probe is based on the notion that companies that hide their fees would have an unfair advantage over rivals whose fee structure is more transparent.
The companies named in the investigation are among the most recognizable names on the Internet: Amazon.com, Apple Inc., and Google Inc. French gaming company Gameloft SA was also named in the ruling.
The companies will be fined 5 million euros (6.9 million U.S. dollars) each. Legal experts told Xinhua the companies cannot appeal an administrative ruling like this one, though they will have 30 days to argue that the sanctions involved are too tough or that the conclusion drawn by the regulator was wrong.
The biggest impact of the ruling is not the financial aspect -- all the companies involved are large enough and rich enough that paying such a fine would not impact their bottom line -- but rather the precedent it would set.
"If the ruling stands, it would set a standard the companies could be forced to answer to whenever a similar situation arises in the future, which is bound to happen," Gabrielle Bianchi, an antitrust expert at the law school at the University of Emilia Romagna in Modena.
It is not the first time Italy has stood up to rich and powerful Internet companies: Italian tax authorities are currently looking into the bookkeeping practices of big online firms including Amazon, eBay, and Facebook to record the revenue they earn in Italy for tax purposes.
Earlier, Italian regulators looked into whether or not Google should be forced to share revenue with Italian companies they link to for content. Before that, Google's now-defunct Google Video service was taken to court to determine whether the company was guilty of privacy abuses when it allowed a controversial video to remain online despite complaints from users.
But it is mostly in the realm of antitrust law and its enforcement where Italy is among the leaders in Europe, according to Luca de Grazia, an attorney specializing on antitrust issues.
"This role goes way back," de Grazia told Xinhua. "Back in the 1990s, Italy investigated the way Internet companies promoted themselves three or four years before those kinds of abuses were looked into in other countries."
Bianchi, de Grazia and other said at least part of the reason Italy has a leadership role in this area even as it lags in others is because of the way competition laws are written -- with wording that allows precedents to play a big role and that put a great deal of importance on the rights of the individual.
"It doesn't happen often, but in Italy, a full investigation can be launched by regulators based on a single complaint from a single consumer," de Grazia said.