Thursday, November 05, 2009
***Sur la voie d’un marché intérieur numérique ?...UE***
***« Une chose est certaine, un nouveau dispositif s’impose pour pouvoir prendre en compte les intérêts des consommateurs et ceux des commerçants » a déclaré Meglena Kuneva, Commissaire européenne chargée de la protection des consommateurs, lors d’une conférence qui s’est tenue mercredi dernier et portait sur les droits des consommateurs sur le marché numérique. Cette conférence réunissait quelque 150 participants venant d’organisations de défense des consommateurs, d’associations professionnelles, de délégations gouvernementales, d'administrations, etc. (en anglais)
With so many stakeholders on hand it was clear that there were different opinions as to how consumer protection is to be designed for consumers who purchase such items as films, music or anti-virus programs by downloading them on the Internet. There was, however, broad consensus that there is a need for more knowledge and data on the specific problems that consumers face. Meglena Kuneva, Commissioner for Consumer Affairs, was the first to emphasise this:
"The market needs to understand the needs of the consumers," she said and talked about a study ordered by the Commission to be presented in 18 months time. Focus will be on examining the specific problems consumers have in the digital market and the situation regarding legislation in the area in EU Member States. The Commission will also publish guidelines on unfair commercial practices within a month. Furthermore, the Commission has begun collecting information on how Internet users’ personal data is used.
Same content, different rights
"It is high time to adapt consumer law to the buyers of eBooks and other consumers in the digital economy", said Natali Helberger from the Institute for Information Law, University of Amsterdam after demonstratively holding up an ordinary book in one hand and an eBook in the other. Ms Helberger highlighted the challenge in that tangible (physical) and intangible (digital) products with the same content – such as a novel – can be in different formats. Depending on the format, the consumer then has different options when it comes to such matters as copying the content.
"When revising the legal protection of the digital consumer, we cannot look at consumer law in isolation, but must take into account sector specific consumer law," Ms Helberger stated, and several participants agreed with her during the course of the day.
Consumer protection for all products
"Unclear rights turn into no rights," said Ursula Pachl from the European Consumers’ Organisation (BEUC), who expressed a need for consumer protection that does not differentiate between tangible and intangible products. She explained that the problems consumers face mainly deal with content not working the way it should, the product they purchase not being compatible with the hardware they use, lack of information and limits in contract terms. The BEUC stated that consumers’ problems with digital content should be included in the draft Consumer Directive now under negotiation.
A business perspective
Dorothee Belz from Microsoft primarily emphasised the difficulty in predicting the way software will be used and that avoiding defects in these products is impossible. She also questioned what benefit legislation in the area would bring and expressed preference for a simpler solution, based on common interests and cooperation among politicians, business interests and consumers. Ms Belz later received support from James Waterworth, President of the European Digital Media Association (EDiMA):
"Rules impede innovation or become obsolete. The market must have regulation based on fundamental principles rather than legislation – this is what will lead to the emergence of a functioning single digital market." Mr Waterworth also encouraged greater confidence in consumers.
"We have to take account of the capabilities of the ‘digital natives’," he said, alluding to the many young people who have grown up with the Internet and who, as opposed to ‘digital immigrants’, are competent consumers who also often take direct part in the development of digital products and services. He stated that much of the consumer protection in place for the analogue market is also in place for the digital market and that such forums as FAQs, email replies, chat support and the opportunities to report problems and compare producers online often strengthen the rights of consumers.
Compensation for consumers
That there still is a need for consumer protection in the area was demonstrated by Jill Johnstone, Director of International Policy and Advocacy at Consumer Focus in the UK. According to their surveys, some 102 000 complaints from consumers were received in 2008–2009, which was an increase of 36 per cent from the previous year. Purchases over the Internet were the primary cause for complaint regarding purchase, delivery, product defects and misleading information.
"Software is different, but not that different," Ms Johnstone said and felt that clients should be offered compensation if their digital products did not work. She was disappointed that the draft Consumer Directive does not deal with the issue of digital content, as was Ursula Pachl from BEUC.
A visitors perspective
Anna-Karin Smedberg from the Swedish Trade Federation was one of the approximately 150 visitors at the conference. She felt that the issue of strengthened consumer protection in the area of digital products should definitely be examined.
"Harmonisation is very important, not just in the EU but throughout the global market," she said. The work on a fully harmonised Consumer Rights Directive should therefore continue."
Another visitor, Sven Röhr, Policy Officer at the Commission, stressed the importance of producing a study on the issue:
"We are trying to do the right thing," he said and underlined that the most important thing at the moment is first to collect data before a possible legislation process begins.
A starting point for future discussions
During the concluding discussions at the conference, Peter Rott from the University of Bremen emphasised something that became clear at the conference.
"Consumers should have rights and they must be made clear. We cannot be scared by the complexity of the issue and do nothing."
There is no doubt that Wednesday’s conference will be an important starting point ahead of the coming years’ discussions on how we are to create a single digital market for both consumers and vendors.