Against the Goliaths of the online marketplace the law must stand behind David, says Reding

Yesterday the European Commission’s Vice President Viviane Reding addressed the EU Consumer Summit on the issue of enforcement.

Ms Reding reaffirmed the vital importance of consumer defences, particularly in times of economic crisis, saying that consumer spending accounts for 56 per cent of the EU’s GDP but that its full potential could only be tapped once consumers were given the confidence to shop across EU borders. This confidence, said Reding, has to stem from consumer rules which “protect David when he is negotiating with Goliath.”

The Vice President went on to say that “strong rules become weak when they can be disregarded with impunity” and that therefore, the Commission needs to take a more prominent role in monitoring and coordinating enforcement of these rules, in particular by:

  • Making use of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive to improve consumer welfare;
  • Simplifying internal procedures and strengthening deterrents within Member States; and
  • Ensuring information supplied to consumers about legal rights and warranties is accurate.

One area specifically mentioned by Reding as a market where consumer vulnerability continues to be exploited is the online sphere – a problem about which ICOMP has spoken extensively.

The behaviour of today’s digital “Goliaths” is all too often inimical to the interests of consumers. Taking, for example, the issue of privacy, consumers are often given little or no indication of the policies which apply when they use online services and have scant recourse when they feel their concerns have been ignored. As the number of ongoing multijurisdictional privacy investigations will attest – certain dominant online service providers clearly recognise no existing deterrent to their infringement of consumer privacy rights.

Ms Reding makes an important point when she says that it is up to the Commission to enforce the rights of the consumer and that this needs to extend beyond the high street. ICOMP Director Auke Haagsma said “Ms Reding is right that the Commission cannot sit on the side-lines when rules are disregarded.  We welcome her determination to ensure that these protections are  extended to the digital marketplace.”