Consumer rights in the digital context01.06.2020
General statements of communications consumer rights
While basic consumer rights apply in principle across all consumer transactions, they need to be elaborated and specialized in each sector so that providers know exactly what is expected of them and consumers know where they stand. The UNCTAD Manual on Consumer Protection (UNCTAD 2019) contains chapters on the application of basic consumer rights to financial services, public utilities (mainly water, sanitation, and energy) and food, while its Sustainable Development publication (UNCTAD 2017) covers their application to health care. This article illustrates how they have been interpreted in the digital sector in some countries.
Table 4.1 of the Handbook chapter on consumer affairs shows how, as more of life moves online, it becomes harder to draw a line between consumers and citizens and their respective rights, so that often people now speak simply of digital rights.
An example of how the basic consumer rights can be interpreted for consumers of connected objects in the Internet of Things (IoT) is provided in the table below. This was produced in 2014 by members of the OECD’s Civil Society Information Society Advisory Council (CSISAC).
Following that is a box listing the rights of telecommunications consumers in Mexico, taken from a short, clear, statement of these rights that the regulator in Mexico has included on its website.
Consumer rights in the Internet of Things
|Basic consumer right||Suggested relevance to consumers of connected objects (IoT)|
|1. Right to basic needs||IoT functionality must not detract from “dumb” working of the basic product in which it is embedded, whether or not IoT is active; and IoT products should work at a basic level even if other products to which they should connect are not offering IoT functionality, through design or malfunction.|
|2. Right to safety/security||IoT product malfunction must be clearly signalled, and have no worse consequence than being inactive. IoT should be designed so as to improve consumers’ physical safety. Mass IoT system collapse must be designed out of the system.|
|3. Right to choice||Consumers must be able to choose whether and how to use IoT products, with full control over collection, sharing and use of their personal data.|
|4. Right to redress||Consumers must be able to get redress when IoT products do not function as promised. Redress should be no harder to pursue and obtain than for non-IoT products, even where there is a long and complex value chain.|
|5. Right to information||Consumers must be able to get full information on prospective IoT purchases, including their privacy aspects, and continuing information and support throughout product life. Consumers must be able easily to identify and contact the party responsible for any problems.|
|6. Right to consumer education||Consumers should be made aware of IoT functionality that may affect them other than by their own choice, for example in transport, shops and public spaces, and of their relevant rights.|
|7. Right to representation||Governments and businesses should consult consumer representatives, and take account of their views, when making policy decisions that will affect consumers.|
|8. Right to healthy environment||The environmental aspects of IoT products (such as their energy consumption, radio emissions or raw material implications) should be clearly indicated in product labelling.|
Source: https://csisac.org (civil society submission to OECD).
Rights of telecommunications consumers in Mexico
Some regulators expand on the rights of accessibility for people with disabilities. The headings of an example from South Africa are given in the box below.
Rights of disabled communications consumers in South Africa
An Australian report (Humphry 2014) stresses the vital importance of mobile connectivity in the lives of homeless people in Australia, now that society depends so much on internet access.
New consumer rights: examples from Brazil and the EU
The box below contains selected new consumer rights introduced in 2014 by the Brazilian regulator Anatel. These are not generally standard provisions and are worth considering elsewhere.
General Regulation on Consumer Rights of Telecom Services (GRC), Resolution nº. 632/2014 includes new rules as follows:
On January 31, 2014, ANATEL launched a new Consumers website: www.anatel.gov.br/consumidor. It was created to convey, in simple language with few technical terms, the most relevant information about telecommunications service and consumers’ rights. The website intends to narrow the relationship with telecom consumers and provides better information on sectoral issues of interest to consumers.
Source: Adapted from ITU 2017.
The European Electronic Communications Code (EECC)is a consolidation and update of several previous Directives governing the sector; it took several years to come into being and is due to be implemented across the Union during 2020. Its provisions cover all aspects of regulating the sector, the main changes most relevant to consumers are summarized in the box below.
Enhanced end-user protection in the European Electronic Communications Code
Source: Adapted from Squire Patton Boggs summary of the code.
Digital rights are essentially human rights as experienced online. As such, they tend to focus on freedom of expression, personal privacy, transparency, and freedom from unwarranted surveillance. Many civil society organizations around the world are now standing up for such rights; as is discussed in the Handbook chapter on “Consumer affairs”, it is ever harder to draw clear lines between digital rights and consumer rights online. The word cloud shown above represents a view from the European Digital Rights umbrella group.
Two specific areas of digital consumer rights worth mentioning are:
- The right to be fully informed about environmental aspects of digital activity. The topic of how the digital transformation can be managed to be as beneficial as possible for the environment, and particularly for energy consumption and climate change, is a huge one which is being addressed elsewhere and which will interest people as citizens. From a narrow consumer viewpoint, people should be made aware of the energy consumption of their devices and activities, and also about likely device lifetimes and how to minimize e-waste.
- Clear and fair online terms and conditions: these are needed not just for communications services (which, as discussed in the Handbook chapter on “Consumer affairs”, ICT regulators may specify and require) but for digital transactions of every kind. A new international standard has been proposed to build on existing U.K. good practice guidelines, which are outlined in the box below.
Best practice guide – Improving consumer understanding of contractual terms and privacy policies: evidence-based actions for businesses
- See, for example, https://www.itu.int/en/action/environment-and-climate-change/Pages/default.aspx, https://gesi.org/, and https://www.creds.ac.uk/digital-society/. ↑
Humphry, Justine. 2014. Homeless and Connected: Mobile phones and the Internet in the Lives of Homeless Australians. Sydney: University of Sydney for ACCAN. http://www.accan.org.au/files/Grants/homelessandconnected/Homeless_and_Connected_web.pdf.
ITU (International Telecommunication Union). 2017. Report on Question 6/1: Consumer Information, Protection and Rights: Laws, Regulation, Economic Bases, Consumer Networks. Geneva: ITU. https://www.itu.int/pub/publications.aspx?lang=en&parent=D-STG-SG01.06.3-2017.
UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development). 2017. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through Consumer Protection. Geneva: UNCTAD. https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditccplp2017d2_en.pdf.
UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development). 2019. Manual on Consumer Protection. Geneva: UNCTAD. https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditccplp2017d1_en.pdf.Last updated on: 19.01.2022