EUROPEAN CONSUMER FORUM - Dublin Castle 3rd-4th September 1996
"The Consumer & the Information Society"
Dublin Castle 3rd-4th September 1996
Speech by European Commissioner Emma Bonino
I am very pleased to have this opportunity to address you on the occasion of the opening of this Forum on the subject of "Consumer Issues in the Information Society".
Firstly, I wish to express my gratitude to the Irish Presidency for organising this FORUM. Ireland recognised before many of the other Member States, the potential for development within the computer technology industry. It is a country which already enjoys a disproportionately large share of European computer output, providing good jobs for many of its citizens. I am not surprised, therefore, to find myself responding to the very useful initiative of the Irish Presidency and participating in a major conference to explore "Consumer issues in the Information Society". The willingness and ability of the mass of consumers to use the services and potential of the Information Society will determine the extent to which the whole industry develops.
A big business has already been built on "business to business" communication systems - an even greater business be further developed providing that it is designed to meet consumer needs and proves useful to them. Ireland's initiative in bringing together key actors in the market to help identify consumer needs is, indeed, a constructive step likely to pay dividends in future years and benefit every citizen in the European Union.
If this technology can nullify distance and compress time, it can put Connemara or Killarney at the heart of the market place, rather than on the periphery, and thus overcome the disadvantage, well recognised until now, of being physically distant.
But what is the Information Society ?I suppose you all will have your own pet definition but, for me, the "Information society" is a broad-based concept which comprises three major aspects:
- technological developments affecting communications;
- products and services based on those developments;
- the benefits and social changes which result from the combination of the above two factors.
However, we must be careful not to concentrate solely on the INFORMATION part thereby neglecting the equally-important concept of SOCIETY. The impact of these developments is so profound and wide-spread, that it covers many aspects beyond the purely technological features, including the social, economic, legislative, educational, cultural, institutional, and political dimensions.
I emphasise this broad description because I feel it is very important for the clarity of subsequent discussions in this Forum, to distinguish the "Information Society" from other terms which it has become fashionable to use, such as INTERNET and the "information super-highways". The Information Society is more than just the INTERNET, even though this particular platform is perhaps the fastest growing element and the one which receives the most media attention.
The new technologies have developed at an accelerating pace over recent years and are now beginning to have a major impact on society to such an extent that it is becoming clear that the world is entering a revolution comparable to previous major upheavals such as the Industrial Revolution or the invention of electricity.
One of the major characteristics of this revolution is that, to a certain extent, it may be said that:
* the effect of distance is nullified: for example, you do not have to be in Paris to be able to admire the contents of the Louvre museum;
* time is compressed: for example, a facsimile of a document can be sent half way round the world in a few seconds whereas a generation ago it would have taken days even using air-mail;
* geographical and political frontiers are abolished: for example, you can order a book from the United States or Australia as easily as from your nearest bookshop.
It will, in many respects, turn the world into a Global Village.
THE CONSUMER DIMENSION
The "information revolution" will affect people in various ways depending on the activity which they are engaged in at any particular time. Some of the effects - such as interbusiness communications, the development of various technological standards, defence uses - will not be of concern to people as consumers. However, the overall purpose of this Forum is limited to considering the effects of the "information society" developments on peoples' activities as consumers.
As with all human inventions, the Information Society is a two-edged sword: it has both benefits and risks.
So what are the beneficial effects of information developments for consumers likely to be? Let me give a few examples:
- New products: examples include GSM telephones, video telephones; satellite TV decoders, electronic cameras.
- New services: for example, telebanking, teleshopping, 24-hour shopping and banking, tele-entertainment (e.g.. video-on-demand; inter-active television).
Wider choice of existing goods or services, by being able to obtain information from other suppliers (e.g. via fax-back services) in what is becoming a global single market;
"Mass customisation", which combines the lower cost of mass production with the better satisfaction of meeting clients needs through individual specification of the precise combination required (e.g. compilation of an individual electronic newspaper);
More competitive prices as a result of the increased availability of relevant market information.
But as I have already pointed out, the "Information Society" revolution will not be all benefits and no pain. Problems will arise and some of these are already evident.
For example, it is precisely the extent of these changes which are at the root of one major difficulty as far as people's attitude to the "Information Society" is concerned. Although most people would acknowledge at least some of the benefits which are becoming available, such changes can bring, there is also widespread apprehension that the rate of change will outstrip the capacity of people to adjust. There is a risk that many, particularly the old and the disadvantaged, will be left behind.
Moreover, concern is being expressed that Information Society developments are essentially supplier-led at present. They appear to many as a series of technological achievements which business is pushing . . . much like a solution in search of a problem!
As far as many consumers are concerned, the Information Society is like some super new toy, as it is being sold largely as a means of entertainment.
However, the capacity of these developments to affect the daily lives of consumers is far greater than currently perceived. It would, therefore, be wrong to neglect the strategic questions such as how to ensure :
* that the Information Society meets consumers' needs;
* that the consumer gets a fair deal;
* that consumers develop the necessary skills and confidence to take advantage of the undoubted benefits which are becoming available.
The Commission's approach
As Commissioner responsible for consumer policy, my task is to ensure that the Commission responds to such concerns and that the Commission develops appropriate action, to minimise the risks and to maximise the potential benefits offered to consumers by the "information society".
However, trying to define what that action should be is no simple matter given the wideranging impact of developments, the rapid rate of change, the uncertainty of future developments and, of course of the principle of subsidiarity.
Unfortunately, the Commission is somewhat late in considering the consumer dimension of the Information Society, and there remains much ground to make up.
As a starting-point, the Commission, in its Communication on "Priorities for consumer policy", has recognised that the consumer aspects of the information society should be a priority area. This recognition has been followed by a re-organisation of the Serviceresponsible for consumer policy, including the establishment of a new Unit with specific responsibility for work on the information society.
The immediate objective of current activity in this area is to establish a work programme which will identify various types of action which the Commission should undertake.
As part of its preparatory work, the Commission, last year, ordered a study on "The Consumer in the Information Society". The final report from the Consultants was discussed with consumer organisations during a seminar on 4 June 1996, and you will be hearing more about this study during this Forum.
This FORUM marks another step forward as it widens the consultation process to include representatives of many other interests involved. I am counting on the results of your discussions to provide further valuable input needed to:
* clearly identify consumer issues;
* establish priorities amongst the various problems;
* decide amongst the various possible courses of action.
Thoughts on potential issues
In order to stimulate your debate on this matter, I would like to take a few minutes to share with you some of my own thoughts on this subject.. I will group my comments into FIVE groups:
* problems arising from consumer transactions using new communications technology;
* legal issues;
* responsibilities of carriers;
* social aspects affecting consumers;
- Consumer transactions
An essential and distinguishing characteristic of peoples activities as consumers is that they are concerned with transactions in the market, so what sort of problems arise when consumer transactions are implemented via electronic media. I can see several areas where problems could arise.
- Status of supplier
When considering whether or not to undertake any transactions, the first and most basic item of information that a consumer needs to know is the status of the supplier. In traditional commerce, this was relatively easy, as the establishment of the trader was generally very visible and located in a fixed place. With commerce in hyperspace, this conditions no longer hold: a trader can be physically located in one country, establish a company in another country, and use the INTERNET services in a third country. And all that may change virtually overnight, so that the trader disappears from hyperspace as quickly as he appeared.
As future electronic transactions are likely to increase and could well involve more complex products or services, a certain amount of regulation may be needed to ensure that the parties to a transaction are clearly identified and their responsibilities outlined before the transaction can take place.
- Rules governing advertising & the amount of information about products or services
If consumers are to have sufficient confidence to explore the possibilities offered by the Information Society as far as electronic commerce is concerned, one thing they will require is "information". In a "virtual" world where you cannot handle products, some other form of detailed description will become necessary, possibly using multimedia.
A connected problem is that of advertising. Since most INTERNET advertising is atransnational concept, the question will be which regulatory regime should apply. Other advertising-related concerns which may require some examination include the application of existing rules dealing with sponsorship, links between advertisers and information providers, subliminal and clandestine advertising techniques, the identification of advertising as such. All these areas have been subject to some form of regulation in the context of more traditional communications media: will it be sufficient to apply existing rules?
- Transaction conditions
As with the more traditional types of transaction, it is not always clear what contractual terms apply to an electronically mediated transaction, or indeed whether any contract exists and with whom, what are the obligations and rights of consumer and supplier. Is the supplier responsible for any mistakes etc.
I must also emphasise that transparency should apply not only to the products or services being offered on, say, the INTERNET but also to the prices and conditions of use for such electronic services.
- Means and proof of payment
At present, transactions on the INTERNET are not sufficiently secure and even financial connections such as phone banking or tele-banking via a personal computer are still open to abuse. Linked to this question of security of payment is the need to have some form of audit trail and permanent proof that payment has been made in a particular case. Various solutions are being investigated including the use of electronic signatures, and the intervention of trusted third parties.
It is obvious from the points raised above that one of the first tasks for the Commission to undertake in this field will be to analyze the existing EU consumer legislation to assess how far the provisions of various EU Directives can be extended to cover the situations arising in the information society.
For example, a rapid adoption of the Distance Selling Directives is vital so that consumers in the Information Society can take full advantage of these contractual safeguards. The draft directive requires that certain information regarding, for example, price, quality, payment terms, and the right of withdrawal, shall be supplied to the consumer. It also gives the consumer a right to withdraw from the transaction within 7 working days from the receipt of the product or the service. In addition, it requires payments to be cancelled if the number of a credit card has been recorded without presentation or some form of electronic identification.
Another legal problem area concerns consumer complaints and redress. Provision must be made for fair, cheap and quick resolution of individual problems with suppliers. Good complaints handling with adequate redress is the vital safety net when preventative measures have failed. The current ONP Voice Telephony Directive requires suitable procedures for voice telephony. The same or parallel mechanisms may be necessary to deal with the problems arising form other aspects of the information society.
One of the principal issues under the heading of carrier responsibility is that of deciding whether the providers of electronic transmission services are responsible for the content which passes through the system. A problem in this area is that of the protection of minorswhile using multimedia services. Currently, the debate focus itself on what is considered to be "indecent". This is a very sensitive area to deal with because it touches the basic principle of human rights, the freedom of expression. Is it appropriate to take measures in this area or should it be left over to the individual groups to filter the material?
A further issue is the protection of privacy in the new media. The new communications technologies provide the means of collecting and using personal data without the knowledge or fully-informed consent of the consumer. Once digitised, personal data may be easily exchanged between organisations and combined to provide a more comprehensive view of the individual. Widespread public concern has already led to European data protection but its scope needs to keep pace with market practices. Powerful organisations will use new technologies to improve their efficiency but they could cross the limits of what is acceptable as far as the use of the data gathered is concerned. On the other hand, consumers may greatly benefit form the centralised holding of their personal information, e.g. in the case of a road accident far from home.
In essence, this issue has two important aspects: if the Information Society is to be successful, it must - by definition - be accessible and affordable.
Firstly, the question of accessibility. Many people have identified the possibility of a cleavage between people which have access to the new services offered by the new communications technologies and those that cannot easily have access because of their remoteness from a suitable connection point. This is the "universal service" debate.
Minimum service obligations will be required, because it is commercially not attractive in a competitive environment to provide all areas and social groups with services they need.
The second issue is closely connected to that of universal accessibility, and it is the thorny question of affordability. Current and future developments in the telecommunications market carry a risk that consumer prices for the transmission of new services may be higher than they should be or inequitably distributed. One of the principal reasons for introducing competition in the telecommunications industry is to lower the costs of telecommunication services. However, this often conflicts with the interests of the existing main players in this market. In addition, as we have seen in Italy very recently, the rebalancing of the telecom tariffs well before competition is introduced can be harmful for domestic consumers.
Thirdly, there is the question of how to ensure that disadvantaged consumers are also able to enjoy some of the benefits of the new technologies. Some older people have virtually no experience of electronic equipment.. We have to prevent at all costs that such consumers do not become even more disadvantaged just because they do not have the means and ways to take advantage of the new developments.
Having looked briefly at some of the problems which consumers may face from the developments of the Information Society and considered some possible solutions, there remains the question of who should do what?
When reflecting on future political developments at the level of the EU, great care must be taken not to forget that the Union Institutions are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Indeed, the Commission has to deal with the subsidiarity principle. It should not undertake actions which can be adequately implemented at national, regional or local level. In fact,our actions relating to consumer policy require that the Commission works closely together with the appropriate existing consumer organisations and institutions.
However, in view of the global dimension of the Information Society developments, it is arguable that the appropriate forum for discussing any regulatory framework is an organisation such as the World Trade Organisation, rather than institutions based on regional grouping.
But no matter at what level such policy issues are discussed, there is a potential danger that consumers may have inadequate avenues for influencing policy, and may be unaware of those avenues that do exist. Policies that affect consumers are often decided by government and industry with insufficient consultation of consumers. Genuine involvement of consumer representatives in policy making with adequate research backup and adequate resourcing may be the best route for avoiding problems.
It should not be overlooked that one advantage of the new communications technologies is that they offer great potential for obtaining consumer feedback and discussing issues openly. It was this aspect in mind that I launched a "Consumer Helpline" on the INTERNET some time ago. Whilst usage of this facility is still relatively limited - approximately one message per day it is growing and it has provided an example of bringing the European Union closer to citizens which might well be followed by other Commission Services in future.
The Commission's approach.
The issues I have identified are not, of course, the only ones and I am sure that you will have your own list of issues which merit consideration.