ANNUAL ASSEMBLY OF CONSUMER ASSOCIATIONS,
BRUSSELS, NOVEMBR 1999
REPORT FROM WORKING GROUP 2; ELECTRONIC COMMERCE
1. The group had a wide ranging discussion about
e-commerce and the potential opportunities, benefits and threats
associated with electronic transactions. We used e-commerce as
a generic term for a wide range of activities and services ranging
from e-shopping, information provision to so-called information
2. A range of views was expressed, and we
learnt about experiences in different countries within the EU
and in the candidate countries. This reminded us that use and
awareness of e-commerce varies enormously but we generally agreed
that e-commerce is likely to expand, for governments and for consumers.
3. The discussions centred around several
themes, summaries below.
Access, affordability and availabilityof
the necessary equipment, the knowledge and skills to use e-commerce,
and the means to pay. Poor literacy skills and technophobia, fears
of unsuitable content (pornography) and security risks are real
barriers for many consumers.
Governments may have to intervene to ensure consumers
have access at a "reasonable price", backed up by local
and community initiatives.
Information and educationso
that consumers know what is available, how e-commerce works, how
to get the best out of it and when it would be better to use alternatives.
It is important to avoid too great a concentration on e-commerce
and IT skills at the expense of other life, social and practical
Security, privacy, data protectionan
area where regulation is required. Developments in technology
may also help provide solutionseg voice recognition, biometrics,
Redress and cross border redresseffective
mechanisms for co-operation between countries within the EU and
with other states will be essential but a scheme needs to be rooted
Codes of practiceare
proliferating as a short-term answer but are voluntary, do not
always include cross border redress, and can be seen as industry-friendly.
Codes, backed up by regulation which work in the offline world
could be used as a model eg mail order.
is at an early stage of development and we do not know how far
it will extend. The related technology and means of access or
delivery will also change. For example the PC/modem model may
be superceded by other devices like the mobile telephone or digital
4. Overall we agreed that there is no prospect
of meaningful regulation being agreed and enforced globally, and
that a pragmatic approach is needed when considering e-commerce.
We concluded that, if e-commerce is to flourish, the processes
and transactions involved must be easy and safe to use, and that
consumers must be able to resolve difficulties and disputes quickly,
cheaply and effectively.
5. Industry has a major role to play, for
example in developing easy to use devices working with users and
potential users, and by adopting best practice. A public policy
lead is, however, essential to ensure consumers are effectively
protected. As e-commerce is difficult to regulate, and regulation
is strongly opposed by business interests, governments need other
ways to establish standards for e-commerce.
6. Bridging regulation and standards
6.1 The Assembly, therefore, invites the
Commission to examine the possibility of linking legislation and
standards, to establish fair marketing and trading practices for
consumersparticularly in the field of e-commerce.
6.2 The standards would be referred to in
broadly-based legislation, for example, establishing a duty to
trade fairly. There would be a presumption that business conformed
with the legislation if the standards were shown to be met. The
standards could relate to specific areas which need to be resolved
in the electronic environment, for example establishing the identity
of the supplier, or dealing with lotteries or special promotions.
6.3 Standardisation bodies, working with
other interested parties including consumer organisations, would
formulate the standards. Several models already exist. For example,
the OECD guidelines for consumer protection in e-commerce may
be a useful starting point, and could be extended to cover other
schemes like BBB Online or TRUSTe.
6.4 Such a bridge between legislation and
standardisation has many advantages:
being rooted in law it is likely
to work, and generate confidence;
it reduces binding legislation to
standards are more flexible than
legislation, and can be reviewed at any time according to new
developments, changes in marketing techniques, or the concerns
there is more democratic legitimacy
in agreed standards than in a framework of purely private and
voluntary codes of practice.
6.5 The Assembly also recognises that an
independent body for scrutiny, ensuring compliance and enforcement,
and for redress, is a necessary element in making any scheme effective.
Effective sanctions for those who fail to comply are also needed.
7. Payment Protection
7.1 Secure and reliable payment mechanisms
are crucial for developing consumer confidence in electronic commerce.
The Assembly, therefore, invites the Commission to explore ways
of limiting the liability of consumers for unauthorised or fraudulent
use of payment cards, including any related charges and the use
of charge back mechanisms. A harmonised and mandatory level of
consumer protection would be highly desirable. If this were realised,
consumers would know they have the same level of protection throughout
7.2 In conjunction with this would be a
programme of consumer education and information so that consumers
understood their rights and liabilities in relation to online
and "not in person" payments. Card issuers would be
in a position to resolve many matters.
8. Finally, the Assembly encourages the
Commission to continue to pursue and develop mechanisms for effective
complaints handling and out of court dispute resolution, including
the establishment of an online ombudsman scheme accessible throughout
Alison Hopkins, rapporteur
National Consumer Council, UK