The European Commission this week launched a new online guide setting out the digital rights that consumers enjoy under EU law.
The 'eYouGuide', launched by the Commission in Strasbourg on 5 May, seeks to offer citizens "practical advice" on consumers' digital rights.
These include rights towards broadband providers, online shopping, downloading music and protecting personal data online, particularly when using social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace.
The eYouGuide tells online shoppers that they have the right to:
- Clear information about prices and conditions before making a purchase;
- Decide if and how their personal data is treated;
- Have goods delivered within thirty days of purchase;
- A minimum 'cooling-off' period of seven working days after purchase for consumers to change their mind.
- Protection against rogue vendors, and unfair contractual terms and commercial practices.
The Commission hopes that giving consumers clear information about their rights "will increase trust and help unlock the full economic potential of Europe's single online market, worth €106 billion in revenues".
"The screen is the new marketplace," said EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, warning that "the online single market will only be a success for business if consumers have confidence in the online environment".
According to the EU executive, "consumers can be sure that all these rights apply" on the three million websites ending with the suffix '.eu'. All such sites must be registered by a person or company established in the EU, and they are subject to the bloc's laws.
Consumers 'worried' about online shopping
Nevertheless, "lots of consumers are put off buying goods on the Internet. They are worried that goods purchased online won't be delivered or will be faulty, and they don't know what to do if there are problems," said Commissioner Kuneva. "The guide clarifies all of these aspects."
Despite welcoming the guide's launch, the European Digital Media Association (EdiMa) warned that "the presence of different rules and regulations across Europe hampers cross-border consumer confidence and can be difficult for users to understand and navigate".
'Digital Agenda' launched
Addressing these concerns, the Commission's consumer affairs and information society departments this week launched a 'Digital Agenda' for consumer rights.
The eight-point plan aims to establish "multi-territorial licensing regimes" for digital content like music and films, end the fragmentation of laws on private copying of copyrighted content, improve privacy policies, boost confidence in online payments and combat spam, among others.
"If we want consumers to shop around and exploit the potential of digital communications, then we need to give them confidence that their rights are guaranteed," said EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva.
"That means putting in place and enforcing clear consumer rights that meet the high standards that already exist in the high street. The Internet has everything to offer consumers, but we need to build trust so that people can shop around with peace of mind," she said.
Outlining the thinking behind the new site, Kuneva explained that "confidence and trust is Europe's new currency, and knowledge is crucial to raising consumer confidence in the online world".
"In the EU, consumer rights online should not depend on where a company or website is based. National borders should no longer complicate European consumers' lives when they go online to buy a book or download a song," said EU Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding. "In spite of progress made, we need to ensure that there is a single market for consumers as well as businesses on the web."
Addressing the issue of spam emails, Reding continued: "Spam is forbidden by European law. If you don't want spam, you shouldn't receive it. But we know very well that this is not being put into practice, and that's why the guide gives you practical tips on what to do to avoid spam."
Czech centre-right MEP Zuzana Roithová, the Parliament's rapporteur for a 2007 resolution on eCommerce in which the proposal first surfaced, said: "Internet users are not always aware of their rights in the digital world, or what is allowed and what is not. Sometimes they come across a website which provides them a service under illegal conditions."
"The increase in confidence of Internet users in digital services will increase eCommerce business. So far, only 6% of consumers within the EU make cross-border purchases," Roithová said.
"I am also happy that the Commission followed my recommendations and is also focusing on the protection of children on the Internet. There are various forms of abuse and it is our duty to protect our children from the potential wrong use of the Internet. In my experience in the Czech Republic, lots of parents want to know about potential dangers for their children," she added.
Welcoming the guide's launch, the European Digital Media Association (EdiMa) said in a statement that it "supports measures aimed at promoting online consumer confidence and applauds the Commission for its initiative in developing this tool to facilitate awareness for European Internet users of their rights and obligations".
"Consumer confidence is key to maintaining a vibrant cross-border online market and ensuring that consumers benefit from the diversity of goods and services provided by new media," said EDiMA President Andrew Cecil.
"Clarifying and informing users of their on-line rights and obligations helps build trust and the Commission should be applauded for its initiative," Cecil added.
Consumer groups also welcomed the initiative. "For too long, consumers have faced a host of problems in the digital environment. The 'Digital Agenda' highlights challenging areas for consumers, such as territorial discrimination, the lack of consumer protection when it comes to digital products and unfair privacy policies, where legislation is urgently needed to ensure consumer confidence online," said Monique Goyens, director-general of BEUC, the European consumer organsisation.
"Actions speak louder than words, so BEUC and its members will work hard to ensure the Commission continues what it has started and takes effective measures on these priority areas," she concluded.
Paul Skehan, Director of European Retail Round Table (ERRT), said: “RFID will enable retailers to offer significant benefits for consumers – fewer stock shortages, faster shopping, greater security concerning the origin and authenticity of products, easier returns and warranties…and publication of the recommendation today will allow more retailers to invest in this new technology."