Valve is under investigation by the European Commission due to the possibility of anti-competitive practices on Steam's storefronts in the EU.
The Commission cited "bilateral agreements" between Valve and five PC publishers - Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home Interactive, Koch Media and ZeniMax - as the focus of its investigation. The concern is rooted in geo-blocking practices, which can be used to restrict a consumer's ability to purchase a product on Steam due to their country of residence. The Commission is particularly concerned about Steam activation keys being used for this purpose, in addition to their utility in the prevention of piracy.
"In particular, an 'activation key' can grant access to a purchased game only to consumers in a particular EU Member State (for example the Czech Republic or Poland)," the Commission said in a statement released today. "This may amount to a breach of EU competition rules by reducing cross-border competition as a result of restricting so-called 'parallel trade' within the Single Market and preventing consumers from buying cheaper games that may be available in other Member States."
The investigation into Valve's agreements - which the Commission stressed would be conducted "on its own initiative" - is one of three being carried out in tandem, with a view to reinforcing a Digital Single Market across Europe. In addition to video games, the Commission is also looking into the online trade of consumer electronics and hotel accommodation.
"E-commerce should give consumers a wider choice of goods and services, as well as the opportunity to make purchases across borders," said Margrethe Vestager, commissioner in charge of competition policy. "The three investigations we have opened today focus on practices where we suspect companies are trying to deny these benefits for consumers.
"More specifically, we are looking into whether these companies are breaking EU competition rules by unfairly restricting retail prices or by excluding customers from certain offers because of their nationality or location."
We have contacted Valve for comment on the matter.
Update: ZeniMax Media has issued a statement to confirm its cooperation with the EC investigation. It stated: "We understand that this investigation is part of a broader review of the sale of copyright content and goods (including TV, film and e-commerce). We will be cooperating with the Commission to address any concerns and remain committed to ensuring that our consumers can freely purchase and download our games, subject to applicable legal or technical requirements that may apply."