Introduction to digital consumer rights: consumer consultation01.06.2020
Representation as a basic consumer right
Source: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng (drawing by Akinoro Oishi).
One of the consumer rights that can be said to underlie all the rest, or to be central to it, is that of representation. When making decisions, regulators are supposed to strike balances among the interests of different stakeholder groups. While some regulators have a special mandate to uphold the interests of consumers, they also have duties towards the industry that they regulate. Consumer representatives, by contrast, are dedicated to putting forward policies that they believe (based on research and expertise) will best serve consumers.
Of course, no stakeholder group can expect regulators to do everything they ask for. But regulators do generally have duties to consult all stakeholder groups, including consumer representatives; to take seriously all views expressed; and to give reasoned explanations of their decisions, wherever possible including feedback to commenters whose suggestions have not been adopted. Commonly, industry lobbyists are far better funded, more numerous and have better access to regulators than their consumer counterparts, so regulators may need to listen harder and offer support to consumer representatives in order to ensure they get a fair hearing.
Consultation is often focused on specific policy issues, on which documents have been published explaining a regulator’s options and their perceived advantages and disadvantages. The box below shows the principles that the United Kingdom regulator, Ofcom, applies to such consultations. Those provisions which are especially valuable for consumer representatives are shown in bold.
How Ofcom’s seven consultation principles help consumer representatives
Ofcom has seven principles that it follows for every public written consultation:
Before the consultation
1. Wherever possible, we will hold informal talks with people and organizations before announcing a big consultation, to find out whether we are thinking along the right lines. If we do not have enough time to do this, we will hold an open meeting to explain our proposals, shortly after announcing the consultation.
During the consultation
2. We will be clear about whom we are consulting, why, on what questions and for how long.
3. We will make the consultation document as short and simple as possible, with a summary of no more than two pages. We will try to make it as easy as possible for people to give us a written response. If the consultation is complicated, we may provide a short Plain English guide, to help smaller organizations or individuals who would not otherwise be able to spare the time to share their views.
4. We will consult for up to ten weeks, depending on the potential impact of our proposals.
5. A person within Ofcom will be in charge of making sure we follow our own guidelines and aim to reach the largest possible number of people and organisations who may be interested in the outcome of our decisions. Ofcom’s Consultation Champion is the main person to contact if you have views on the way we run our consultations.
6. If we are not able to follow any of these seven principles, we will explain why.
After the consultation
7. We think it is important that everyone who is interested in an issue can see other people’s views, so we usually publish all the responses on our website as soon as we receive them. After the consultation, we will make our decisions and publish a statement explaining what we are going to do, and why, showing how respondents’ views helped to shape these decisions.
Source: Adapted from https://www.ofcom.org.uk/.
The box below summarizes recommendations made in 2015 by a consumer-oriented working group (convened by Ofcom’s Commmunications Consumer Panel) on further improving Ofcom’s consultation procedures from a consumer stakeholder viewpoint.
When planning consultations
Source: Adapted (with permission) from internal document of the U.K. Communications Consumer Panel – 2015 Consultations Review Working Group.
Structures for consumer consultation
Consultation of consumer interests can also be built in to the regulator’s structure, sometimes by having governing body members with duties to represent specific stakeholder types, including consumers, and sometimes through various committees and forums. Countries with notable structures for consumer representation and consultation include Malaysia and Australia – these are briefly described below. Nigeria’s Telecommunications Consumer Parliament, set up in 2003 by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), is an interesting example which is discussed more fully in the next section.
The Consumer Forum of Malaysia (CFM) was set up by the regulator in 2001, as a separate body with membership from both providers and consumer bodies in the sector. Its coregulatory status fosters the development of, and adherence to, industry codes of practice for consumer empowerment and protection. This arrangement permits it to be well resourced and to produce a range of useful materials for consumer support, as well as handling dispute resolution.
In Australia, the sector supports several relevant bodies, including:
- Communications Alliance, an industry coregulatory body which produces and enforces codes of practice (some of which have a direct bearing on consumers) under the overall supervision of the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
- The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, a dispute resolution body whose work is discussed in a thematic article on “Dispute resolution and redress.”
- The regulator has its own Consumer Consultative Forum which meets twice a year, bringing together representatives from a range of consumer organizations with a few industry leaders and regulatory personnel.
- The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), a government-funded dedicated consumer body which supports consumers, inputs independent views to relevant consultations, takes part in standards discussions, and both carries out its own research and funds research by other organizations.
Nigeria’s Telecom Consumer Parliament
The box below reproduces general information about the Telecom Consumer Parliament (TCP) as provided by the NCC on its website. The Consumer Affairs Bureau outreach pages further clarify that the TCP is just one element in NCC’s consumer outreach programme, alongside more frequent consumer outreach events held in cities and consumer town hall meetings held in rural locations. Under the overall direction of senior NCC management, operator personnel have to answer questions from the floor. Instant resolution of complaints has been a high point of sessions. Consumer representative groups have sprung up which are aware of consumer rights and ask well-targeted questions (Enyia 2018).
FAQ on NCC’s Telecom Consumer Parliament
What is Telecom Consumer Parliament?
The Telecoms Consumer Parliament serves as a platform for consumer education and protection, as well as an avenue for telecom consumers to present their issues and problems directly to the operators for resolution. It is a forum convened by NCC, industry regulator which draws participants from operating companies, consumers and officials of the Commission. The proceedings are usually televised in national media. It features civil society groups, consumer rights groups and members of the mass media.
Are all issues raised at the Telecom Consumer Parliament resolved on the spot?
Some of the issues raised are resolved depending on their nature during the programme. Others are resolved after the programme. To ensure that such issues are resolved, NCC formally communicates those concerns to the operators for resolution with definite time frames. The commission follows up to ensure amicable resolutions.
Where and when is it held?
The Telecoms Consumer Parliament is held at a designated city or town within a geo-political zone in Nigeria once every month. There are six geo-political zones in the country. Detailed programme of event is usually announced through the print and electronic media ahead of time to galvanise stakeholders’ attendance.
Is admission to the Telecoms Consumer Parliament free to every citizen?
Yes, it is free. Consumer information and education publications are also distributed at the forum free of charge to inform and educate consumers on salient consumer issues in the telecommunication industry.
When will the Telecom Consumer Parliament be held in my location so that I can have the opportunity to present my complaint?
The Telecoms Consumer Parliament rotates among the six geo-political zones. However you don’t have to wait for the Telecoms Consumer Parliament to lodge a complaint. You can always make your complaint through the toll free number, e-mail or in person at the Consumer Affairs Bureau of the Nigerian Communications Commission.
Overall, the TCP has been an interesting and constructive undertaking, but the declining frequency of its meetings, mentioned above, shows that it may by now be past its heyday. Any parallel initiative in other countries can learn from this Nigerian experience. In particular, a range of outreach, consultation, and intervention mechanisms is needed if the regulator is to be successful in reaching a reasonable proportion of consumers.
Enyia, Jacob Otu. 2018. Telecommunications Law and Practice in Nigeria: Perspectives on Consumer Protection. Lagos: Malthouse Press. https://www.ebooks.com/en-uk/book/209818251/telecommunications-law-and-practice-in-nigeria/jacob-otu-enyia/?_c=1.
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.
Onyeajuwa, Martha. 2016. Assessment of Ordinary Consumer Representation in Liberalised Mobile Telecommunications Markets: A Case Study of Nigeria. PhD thesis. London: University of Westminster. https://westminsterresearch.westminster.ac.uk/download/4da11634c607fff3eeb176137d369b24ee415f72a05cb2c55ff8a6bee46eb09c/1518143/Onyeajuwa_Martha_Kanene_thesis.pdf.Last updated on: 28.08.2020