Digital Regulation Platform
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Consumer rights in the digital context

01.06.2020

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

  1. Freedom of choice of provider, service, etc.
  2. Right to portability and unblocking.
  3. Right to clear, fair conditions of contract.
  4. Rights in relation to charging for long distance calls.
  5. Right to get the promised quality of network service and equipment.
  6. Right to information.
  7. Right to privacy and protection of personal data.
  8. Right of accessibility for people with disabilities.
  9. Right not to be discriminated against.
  10. Right to access a free-of-charge emergency number.
  11. Right to report theft or loss of a mobile phone and have service immediately suspended.
  12. Right to go to the regulator with queries or complaints not dealt with by a provider.

Source: http://www.ift.org.mx/sites/default/files/contenidogeneral/usuarios-y-audiencias/cartadederechosinfografia2018.pdf#overlay-context=usuarios-y-audiencias/carta-de-derechos.

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

  1. Subtitles, audio captioning and audio description in broadcasting.
  2. National Relay System for people with hearing or speech impairment.
  3. Universally designed products and services, including hearing aid compatibility and customisability for people with impaired vision.
  4. Communication and information suited to those with special needs, including:
    1. Free directory enquiries.
    2. Special numbers for accessing emergency services.
    3. Priority fault repairs.
    4. Billing statements in preferred formats.
    5. Trained customer service staff.
    6. Demonstration of equipment.
    7. Access to marketing and sales information.
    8. Physical accessibility of premises.
  5. Promotion of awareness and compliance.
  6. Accessible complaints processes.

Source: https://www.icasa.org.za/uploads/files/Code-for-People-Disabilities-2014.pdf

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:

  • Automatic service cancellation: Even without talking to an attendant, a service can be canceled by internet or by typing a number on the call center through the interactive voice response system. The automatic cancellation must be processed by the service provider in a maximum of two working days. During this period, consumers can change their mind and the provided service will be charged. Consumers are warned that this is only for canceling the entire contract (Article 15 of the RGC).
  • Instant call back for dropped calls to providers’ call centers: The provider will be required to return the call every time the phone interaction between the consumer and his call center drops. The service provider is required to return the call to the consumer at least one time within 5 minutes. (Article 28 of the RGC).
  • Prepaid credit duration: All credit for prepaid mobile services must have a minimum expiry term of 30 days. The companies must also offer options with expiry terms of 90 and 180 days in their own stores and at electronic recharging points. Whenever consumers want to buy credits, it will be possible to check the expiry term through SMS or by calling a number provided by the company (Article 68 of the RGC).
  • Promotions apply to all: Many providers have promotional offers (with lower prices or even some freebies) to capture new customers. With the new regulation, anyone, customer or not, has the right to join any deal advertised by the service provider. If the interested consumers are already clients, they need to be aware that there may be an early termination fee in their contracts (Article 46 of the RGC).
  • Transparency in offers: Before formally closing any contract, the service providers must give consumers a short summary with clear and organized information about the offer. It should include, for example, whether or not the announced price is valid within a specific period, presenting details of when it starts, when it ends and what the price will be after the end of the promotion (Article 50 of the RGC).
  • Billing related complaints: Whenever a customer complains about a bill and has not yet paid it, the company will issue a new bill without the disputed value and then analyze the situation. If it was already paid, and the analysis concludes that the value has been improperly charged, or if the company does not respond within 30 days, the customer will be entitled to receive double the claimed amount. If after the payment it was verified that the consumer was properly charged, the consumer will return the amount received. (Articles 83 and 85 of the RGC).

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

  • Aligning protections, including security requirements, for end-users of OTTs with those of traditional telecommunication providers.
  • Requiring maximum harmonization in relation to consumer protection provisions, which means that member states may not impose more, or less, stringent provisions than those set out in the EECC.
  • Specifying that service bundles that include an Internet access service or publicly available number-based interpersonal communications service must apply certain consumer protection provisions to the whole bundle.
  • Enhancing user rights during the switching of Internet access services and the porting of phone numbers.
  • Establishing a universal service ensuring availability and affordability of both broadband and voice communications, with a new stress on affordability.
  • Strengthening protection of citizens in emergency situations.
  • Enhancing security of networks and services.
  • Capping the price for intra-EU calls.

Source: Adapted from Squire Patton Boggs summary of the code.

Digital Rights

Source: https://edri.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/WePromiseCharter_booklet_web.pdf.

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:

   Best practice guide – Improving consumer understanding of contractual terms and privacy policies: evidence-based actions for businesses

  1. Techniques to improve customer understanding of terms and conditions and/or privacy policies
    • Display key terms as frequently asked questions.
    • Use icons to illustrate key terms.
    • Show customers your terms in a scrollable text box instead of requiring a click to view them.
    • Provide information in short chunks at the right time.
    • Use illustrations and comics.
  2. Techniques to encourage more customers to open terms and conditions and/or privacy policies
    • Tell customers how long it will take to read your policy.
    • Tell customers when it is their last chance to read information before they make a decision.
  3. Techniques with mixed evidence
    • Present key points in a summary table.
    • Add examples and icons to your full terms.
    • Shorten your full terms.
    • Use simpler language.
    • Use a visual slider to explain fees.
  4. Techniques with little or no supportive evidence
    • Make summaries expandable, allowing customers to click each summary point for more information.
    • Add emoji symbols to your terms.
    • Allow customers to make choices related to your policies while reading them.
  5. Test what works in practice

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/contractual-terms-and-privacy-policies-how-to-improve-consumer-understanding.

Notes

  1. 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/.

References

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: 28.08.2020