International Commercial Law Blog

Participation in the general meeting of listed and non-listed Italian companies by electronic means

Legislative Decree No. 27, dated 27 January 2010 (the “Decree”), transposed in Italy the Directive 2007/36/EC on Shareholders’ Rights, introducing several significant amendments to the legal framework applicable to the rights of shareholders of listed companies.

Among others, the Decree expressly provides that the by-laws of listed and non-listed companies may allow attendance at the shareholders’ meeting and the exercise of voting rights by “electronic means” notably any or all of the following forms of participation:

(a) real-time transmission of the general meeting;

(b) real-time two-way communication enabling shareholders to address the general meeting from a remote location;

(c) a mechanism for casting votes, whether before or during the general meeting, without the need to appoint a proxy holder who is physically present at the meeting.

The exercise of voting rights by electronic means entails an interactive Web site able to allow during the shareholders’ meeting the direct interaction in real time of shareholders, directors and auditors in different physical locations.

From 31 October 2010 the option is available for non-listed companies while Consob, by Resolution No. 17592, dated 14 December 2010 has set forth the rules applicable to the companies listed on Italian or other EU-regulated exchanges, governing remote attendance at the shareholders’ meeting by telecommunication systems and voting by mail and/or electronic means.

Reference shall be made for non-listed companies to Section 2370 subsection 4 of the Italian Civil Code, and for listed companies also to art. 127 of the Legislative Decree No. 58, dated 24 February 1998, as replaced by art. 3 of the Decree, and art. 143 bis of the Consob Regulation No. 11971, dated 14 May 1999, as amended by Consob Resolution No. 17592, dated 14 December 2010.

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Commission adopts revised competition rules on horizontal co-operation agreements

The European Commission has revised its rules for the assessment of co-operation agreements between competitors, so called horizontal co-operation agreements. As it is often vital for companies to work together to achieve synergies, there exist a vast number of horizontal co-operation agreements in many industries.

“Horizontal co-operation agreements” are agreements concluded between competitors (as opposed to vertical agreements which are between companies at different levels in the supply chain), for example with a view to co-operate on research and development, production, purchasing, commercialisation, standardisation, or exchange of information. Horizontal co-operation can be pro-competitive and lead to substantial economic benefits, allowing companies to respond to increasing competitive pressures and a changing market place driven by globalisation. However, where the parties have market power, horizontal co-operation can also lead to serious competition problems.

The texts update and further clarify the application of competition rules in this area so that companies can better assess whether their co-operation agreements are in line with those rules. Modifications concern mainly the areas of standardisation, information exchange, and research and development (R&D).

Today the Commission has adopted a revised set of Guidelines and two Regulations which describe how competitors can co-operate without infringing EU competition rules. The “Horizontal Guidelines” provide a framework for the analysis of the most common forms of horizontal co-operation such as agreements in the areas of R&D, production, purchasing, commercialisation, standardisation, standard terms, and information exchange.

The two Regulations exempt from the competition rules certain R&D, specialisation and production agreements that are unlikely to raise competition concerns. Two key features of the reform are a new chapter on information exchange in the Horizontal Guidelines and a substantial revision of the chapter on standardisation agreements.

The Guidelines promote a standard-setting system that is open and transparent and thereby increases the transparency of licensing costs for intellectual property rights used in standards. The revised standardisation chapter sets out the criteria under which the Commission will not take issue with a standard-setting agreement (“safe harbour”). Moreover, the chapter gives detailed guidance on standardisation agreements that do not fulfil the safe harbour criteria, to allow companies to assess whether they are in line with EU competition law.

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Mere use of a website by the trader does not in itself trigger application of the rules of jurisdiction for the protection of consumers in other Member States

The European Court of Justice in its Judgment in Joined Cases C-585/08 and C-144/09 Peter Pammer v Reederei Karl Schlüter GmbH & Co. KG and Hotel Alpenhof GesmbH v Oliver Heller explains the rules of jurisdiction in European Union law that are applicable to consumer contracts, in relation to services offered on the internet.

The European Union regulation on jurisdiction in civil and commercial matters (see Council Regulation (EC) No 44/2001 of 22 December 2000 on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters) provides that actions against a person domiciled in a Member State must, as a general rule, be brought in the courts of that State. It also provides that cases resulting from a contractual relationship may be decided by the courts for the place of performance of the contractual obligation. In the case of consumer contracts, however, rules protecting the consumer apply. If the trader “directs its activities” to the Member State in which the consumer is domiciled, the consumer can bring proceedings before the courts of the Member State of his domicile and he can be sued only in that Member State.

In its judgment, the Court states that mere use of a website by a trader in order to engage in trade does not in itself mean that its activity is “directed to” other Member States, which would trigger application of the protective rules of jurisdiction in the regulation. The Court holds that, in order for those rules to be applicable in relation to consumers from other Member States, the trader must have manifested its intention to establish commercial relations with such consumers.

In order to determine whether a trader whose activity is presented on its website or on that of an intermediary can be considered to be “directing” its activity to the Member State of the consumer’s domicile, within the meaning of Article 15(1)(c) of Regulation No 44/2001, it should be ascertained whether, before the conclusion of any contract with the consumer, it is apparent from those websites and the trader’s overall activity that the trader was envisaging doing business with consumers domiciled in one or more Member States, including the Member State of that consumer’s domicile, in the sense that it was minded to conclude a contract with them.

In this context, the Court considers what evidence can demonstrate that the trader was envisaging doing business with consumers domiciled in other Member States. Such evidence includes clear expressions of the trader’s intention to solicit the custom of those consumers, for example when it offers its services or its goods in several Member States designated by name or when it pays a search engine operator for an internet referencing service in order to facilitate access to its site by consumers domiciled in those various Member States.

Nevertheless, other less patent items of evidence, possibly in combination with one another, are also capable of demonstrating the existence of an activity “directed to” the Member State of the consumer’s domicile. These include: the international nature of the activity at issue, such as certain tourist activities; mention of telephone numbers with the international code; use of a top-level domain name other than that of the Member State in which the trader is established, for example “.de”, or use of neutral top-level domain names such as “.com” or “.eu”; the description of itineraries from one or more other Member States to the place where the service is provided; and mention of an international clientele composed of customers domiciled in various Member States, in particular by presentation of accounts written by such customers. Likewise, if the website permits consumers to use a language or a currency other than that generally used in the trader’s Member State, this can also constitute evidence demonstrating cross-border activity of the trader.

On the other hand, the mere accessibility of the trader’s website in the Member State in which the consumer is domiciled is insufficient. The same is true of mention of an email address and of other contact details, or of use of a language or a currency which are the language and/or currency generally used in the Member State in which the trader is established.

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