Consumers International, a global organization representing consumer groups worldwide, today called upon governments to take measures to protect consumer’s rights to information, privacy, security and redress in the context of electronic commerce.
“We welcome the OECD’s commitment to develop consumer protection guidelines for the electronic world”, said Louise Sylvan, Vice-President of Consumers International, and CEO of the Australian Consumers’ Association. “However, guidelines are not enough. Online businesses must be legally obliged to respect basic consumer rights just as other businesses are, and online consumers must have effective recourse in the event that they are wronged.”
Consumers International, together with a number of its member groups, is participating at this week’s OECD Conference on Electronic Commerce being held in Ottawa, Canada. While delegates to the conference are largely from the government and business sectors, this is the first time that consumer groups have been invited to participate fully in an OECD Ministerial conference.
“We hope that this is the beginning of a new trend”, said Ms. Sylvan. “Consumer concerns must be front and central in any policy-making exercise involving business-consumer transactions. You can’t have much commerce without consumers.”
Under the leadership of Consumers International, consumer groups from all over the world are calling for strong privacy protection laws, which:

  1. limit the collection of personal information to that which is necessary for the transaction;
  2. give consumers control over the collection, use and disclosure of their personal information;
  3. allows consumers to access and correct information about them held by business;
  4. provide for proactive oversight by an independent body; and
  5. provide redress to those consumers whose rights have been violated.

Consumer groups also point out that the security of Internet transactions must be improved before consumers will place their trust in cyberspace.
“If it’s illegal to spy on someone physically; it should be illegal to spy on them electronically”, said Jim Savary, representing the Consumers’ Association of Canada.
Consumers International also called on the OECD countries to expand and strengthen their existing consumer protection laws so as to address problems that consumers experience when shopping online. “We encourage industry to adopt model contracts and dispute resolution processes, in cooperation with consumer groups”, stated Ms. Sylvan. “But in the end, there must be accountability to consumers, through their governments. Voluntary codes have a place, and they need to be backed up with effective government regulation and enforcement.”
In particular, consumer representatives cite the need for:

  1. minimum standards for consumer information, so that online shoppers know who they are dealing with, where the vendor is located, and what exactly they are agreeing to;
  2. clear rules regarding what constitutes a consumer’s acceptance of an online contract, including a triple-click confirmation requirement;
  3. an easy way for consumers to cancel an order that they didn’t mean to make;
  4. reliable authentication mechanisms to protect consumers from impersonation online;
  5. laws limiting consumer liability in the event of unauthorized transactions;
  6. rules which require payment system operators (such as credit card companies) to reverse consumer transactions which were never authorized, or where the consumer did not receive what they paid for;
  7. effective complaint and dispute resolution procedures for consumers, both within organizations and outside them;
  8. consumer recourse to the laws and courts of their home country, in the event of unresolved disputes with foreign vendors; and
  9. cooperation among governments in the recognition and enforcement of each other’s court judgements with respect to international consumer transactions;

While focusing on the need for government action, consumer groups say that they will be working together internationally to monitor online business practices, to provide tools for consumers to make informed decisions, and to help business adopt appropriate practices in electronic commerce.
Apart from issues of consumer protection, Consumers International stressed the critical need to expand access to the Internet to all members of society. “Electronic commerce should benefit everyone, not just the already privileged”, she remarked. However, Ms. Sylvan cautioned that the promotion of electronic commerce over other more traditional forms of business could have long term effects on the marketplace – such as increased concentration of ownership – that are not in the public interest.
Consumer representatives will be available for comment at 5:00 pm, on Wednesday October 7th, in the Ballroom of the Radisson Hotel, 100 Kent St., Ottawa.
For more information, contact (in Ottawa):
Louise Sylvan, Consumers International – Westin Hotel (613) 560-7000
Jim Savary, Consumers’ Association of Canada – Sheraton Hotel (613) 232-1500
Bjorn Erik Thon, Consumer Council of Norway – Radisson Hotel (613) 238-1122
Nathalie St. Pierre or Marie Vallée, Fédération Nationale des Associations de Consommateurs du Québec – Les Suites (613) 232-2000