Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Groundbreaking Partnership to Create a People's Charter for the Internet

Amanda Long, Director General of Consumers International and Anne Jellema, CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation discuss their new partnership to create a People's Charter for the Internet and what this will mean for consumers.
"The web is now a public resource on which people, businesses, communities and governments depend. I believe that the future of the Web is under threat from some governments that may abuse their powers, some businesses that may try to undermine the open market, and from criminal activity. The future of the Web depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for this extraordinary resource and challenging those who seek to manipulate the Web against the public good."
So wrote Sir Tim Berners-Lee, World Wide Web inventor, and founding director of the Web Foundation, last year. Of course, the opportunities - and challenges - posed by digital technology have been long foretold. In 1962, addressing the United States Congress, US president John F. Kennedy observed: "The march of technology... has increased the difficulties of the consumer along with the opportunities; and it has outmoded many of the old laws and regulations and made new legislation necessary."

What can we do to ensure that Internet's power is returned to individuals, and that the Web is advanced as a public good that benefits all of us?
At Consumers International, and the World Wide Web Foundation, we think it's time for a People's Charter for the Internet. One which starts with the presumption that all women and men should have equal access to the life-changing power of the Internet, and should have the same rights and freedoms online as apply offline. One that gives us control over our personal data and how it is used, whether by companies, governments or other organisations. One which puts fledgling entrepreneurs on a level playing field with giant multi-nationals, and gives everyone a chance to create and succeed - whether in business, science, education or any field of human endeavour.
We're not alone in feeling this way. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Privacy has declared that it's time for a new 'Geneva Convention' for the Internet. Countries such as Brazil and Italy have created their own 'Bills of Rights' for the Internet. Meanwhile, 80% of respondents to a recent Consumers International member survey said that legislation, regulation and standards relating to redress are ineffective at keeping pace with the digital economy.
We know what is at stake and so we are determined to tackle this challenge. That's why, today, we're announcing a new partnership between Consumers International and the World Wide Web Foundation to drive this idea forward. By joining forces, we can bring together over 400 member and partner organisations that span consumer rights, digital rights and civil liberties across more than 120 countries. By bridging our two communities, we can create a powerful vehicle for change.
How might we develop such a Charter? We're clear that it needs to balance the views of experts, industry stakeholders, regulators and ordinary people, so it truly reflects the Web we all want, and we'll be gathering views far and wide. And how might it be used? We're not naive enough to think that it will become international law anytime soon, but using our networks, we can work to convince companies and governments to commit to its principles, and ensure that the Internet advances empowerment, rights and opportunity for all..
We'll be making more announcements in the new year with specifics about how the Charter will be built and launched, but for now keep up to date with developments on the Consumers International website and on our social media channels, Facebook: facebook.com/consumersinternational and Twitter: @Consumers_Int.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

UN Sustainable Development Goals and consumer protection: A shared 2030 Agenda

With the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals this weekend, the world will take an important step towards a more sustainable future. But the journey can be made so much easier with consumer protection as a companion, writes Consumers International's (CI) Director General Amanda Long.

On Friday, UN Member States will adopt an ambitious set of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals build on the work of the Millennium Development Goals, which focused on poverty eradication and fighting hunger, and will take a more inclusive, universal approach with the addition of new measures to reduce inequality, tackle climate change and environmental degradation, promote peace, prosperity and sustainable economic growth.

With slightly less fanfare, but no less significance to consumer organisations, the revised UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP) are also expected to be adopted by this year’s UN General Assembly. Consumers International have been at the heart of this revision process, working with the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and Member States to ensure they are both stronger and more relevant to consumers in today’s global marketplace.

I strongly believe that much more should be made of this opportunity to link these two important global agendas. Consumers are at the heart of many of the issues dealt with in the UN SDGs and it will be a missed opportunity not to use the UN Guidelines to promote consumer welfare, sustainable consumption and the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  

People’s ability to consume, the consumption choices available to them and whether they are treated fairly as consumers, fundamentally affects the quality of their lives and of the environment around them. 

The UN SDGs’ ambition is commendable, but to meet this ambition, everyone needs to be on board. Consumers are the largest constituency in the economy and should not be ignored.

Consumer protection provides a clear means to curb inequalities and to promote fairness, justice and environmental protection in an increasingly complex global economy. 

It ensures that people everywhere are treated fairly and with dignity in the marketplace, and have access to safe, healthy, sustainable products and services. This is particularly important for poor and vulnerable people who are often the most exploited. 

There is still time and opportunity. Once the UN SDGs are formally adopted, policy makers’ attention will turn to getting their message across to the public, and to developing ways to measure their progress.

The public will gain a greater understanding of the UN SDGs if their rights as consumers are protected and promoted through the UN SDGs. And a number of the UN SDGs will be achieved far more effectively by including the implementation of the UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection as an indicator to help measure progress towards the achievement of the UN SDGs.

UNEP, the UN Environment Programme, also recognises the UNGCP’s value and is calling for the same indicator to monitor progress on the UN SDG on sustainable consumption and production. But the UNGCP’s impact covers far more than simply helping people buy the most sustainable option available.

The UN SDGs’ objectives to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and promote shared prosperity, fundamentally rely on how consumers think and act, and how their opportunities, choices and rights are protected – in the developed and developing world.

The eight Millennium Development Goals made great progress in some areas, but fell short in others. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals need to draw on everybody and every policy, to stand any chance of achieving their objectives by 2030. 

Consumer protection is an essential partner for this journey. Let’s not miss this opportunity. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Consumer data protection and the need for alternative new responses

Speaking at the International Symposium on Rule of Law and Consumer Data Protection in Beijing last week, CI’s Director General Amanda Long outlined why data is fast becoming a defining consumer issue for the 21st Century, and the need to identify effective responses that ensure consumers benefit from this data-driven innovation.

The Internet and the innovations it has given rise to, have delivered unprecedented benefits for billions of consumers. 

Data is the commodity that is powering much of this innovation and the digital economy more widely. Handing over personal data is now as key to facilitating an online transaction as handing over money.

While enjoying the benefits, consumers are expressing increasing unease over how personal data is being used.  

The latest European Commission research with consumers reveals that:
  • 67% are concerned about not having complete control over the information they provide online;
  • 71% feel that providing personal information is an increasing part of modern life and accept there is no alternative to providing it if they want to obtain products and services.

New research from the University of Pennsylvania finds that:
"Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them…..More than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened."

Concerns expressed by consumer advocates are reflecting these sentiments. In our recent Global Consumer Protection Survey, CI Members expressed concerns that the digital economy’s rapid evolution is outmoding and outpacing consumer protection:
  • 76% felt enforcement of consumer protection is ineffective in the digital economy (worse than any other sector);
  • 80% judged legislation, regulation and standards relating to redress as ineffective at keeping pace with the digital economy.

Is it time to reboot how we approach data protection?

Today’s smartphone era is characterised by the ease and efficiency with which data can be collected, processed, stored and transmitted; and also by the range of data that is collected including: location, browsing history, contacts and purchases made to name a few.

And yet much of the current data protection legislation around the world was framed as response to the era of mainframe computers and early databases.

Consumers’ growing sense of powerlessness and loss of control in relation to the collection of our personal data is therefore an understandable response.

How best to respond? 

When agile is the guiding principle for how tech companies organise, when products are developed in ‘sprints’ and when the low cost of network effects on the internet mean a service can reach tens of millions within months, can conventional approaches to regulation and consumer protection processes - working to decade-plus revision cycles - really offer effective responses or remain fit for purpose?

Or do institutions charged with consumer protection and data protection and their processes need to evolve too – working in much more agile ways and across the siloes their remits create?

Are there complementary or alternative means for ensuring consumer/data protection that can offer more dynamic responses?   

Self-regulation might be part of the answer, but does it stand a chance of being effective or credible while an ethos of better to ask forgiveness than permission permeates Silicon Valley? 

Or, actually, are the incentives for making self-regulation work in a demonstrable manner significant, given the unintended consequences that well-intentioned, but poorly executed statutory approaches could have on innovation?

A hybrid option might be around “regulated self-regulation” – where government regulators create the conditions in which businesses can demonstrate they are acting in data-respecting ways. The creation of specific ISO standards could support this.

As I outlined in a previous blog, another approach could involve developing tools and services that empower consumers - giving them agency in relation to which data they share, with whom and for what purposes. 

Can the market itself drive change as online privacy and control over how data is used becomes a ‘feature set’ that consumers demand?

Early signs here offer some encouragement – not least as elements of the tech sector either start to realise there is a growing imperative to demonstrate their data-respecting credentials if they are to ward off heavy handed regulation; or realising it makes business sense as they seek to expand to markets, such as health and banking, where data is all the more sensitive.

No doubt the optimal response will draw on elements of all of these options, but getting to that point will require concerted engagement from all working in the consumer interest.

If personal data does, as all the indicators suggest, become the defining issue of the twentieth century, it’s imperative that engagement starts now.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The challenge of regulating new digital services

A new report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) on global regulatory developments related to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) reveals a fast-evolving landscape. Sofie Maddens, Head of the Regulatory and Market Environment Division at the ITU, outlines the challenges for regulating these new digital services.

The ITU's new report reveals a world where devices and services proliferate, broadband connectivity becomes increasingly pervasive, and the hyper-connected world of the ‘Internet of Everything’ starts to become a reality. This year alone:  
  • The 'Internet of Everything’ will grow with more than one billion different kinds of wireless devices expected to be sold;
  • Sales of smartphones, particularly low cost units, will reach 1.4 billion, exceeding sales of PCs, TVs, tablets and games consoles combined;  
  • There will be 2.07 billion active social media accounts globally with active social media users spending an average of nearly 2 hours 25 minutes a day on social platforms.
Through rapid technological innovation, consumers are benefiting from the tremendous opportunities offered by ICTs; and are increasingly becoming more connected as digital social consumers, digital communicators and prime agents of change in a digital transformation.  

However this also means that they are being confronted on a daily basis with new issues. Cybersecurity, child online protection and privacy are all high on the list of priorities for national regulators, as well as international and regional bodies active in this field.

Finding the right regulatory solution

Contrary to other sectors such as: telecommunications, energy, postal, financial and audio-visual sectors; no single regulator or authority in one country or region is in charge of supervising or enforcing a set of binding rules on ICT operators. Often many operators in the online ecosystem are still unregulated. 

Although providers remain confident that the benefits of the online world outweigh the potential risks, from the perspective of regulators, the pace of growth and innovation raises major challenges. 

It is also important to ensure policy and regulations do not create unnecessary barriers to new companies entering the market and thus result in missed opportunities for consumers in terms of price reduction and service diversification. 

Sound, swift and flexible regulations are needed to ensure that consumers are protected online, whilst incentives for service and content providers are created. 

Having universal rules to govern online interactions is not always realistic because of the diversity of standards and norms – be they legal, cultural or social. However co- and self-regulation and consumer empowerment could allow for a healthy and respectful virtual space. 

Consumer empowerment

As consumers are the main drivers of the digital transformation, educating and empowering them is essential to improve the online world. 

Consumers can make or break businesses online – through their new powers to search, compare, rank, recommend or even negotiate preferential conditions. 

Consumers have powerful channels to make their voices heard, but regulators also play a role in protecting data and supporting the rule of law for consumers.

Finding a way forward

There are a number of useful guidelines and principles available to support good regulation. The need to create an enabling environment that protects consumers and suppliers was recognised by regulators at ITU's Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR - 15), the world's largest gathering of ICT regulators and policy specialists from the public and private sectors, which was held last month in the Gabonese capital, Libreville. 

In the 2015 Best Practice Guidelines, regulators specifically recognised the importance of:
  • Adopting cross-sectoral regulatory frameworks which address the specificities of mobile services and apps, and provide consumer protection, freedom of choice and the proper exercise of consumer rights;
  • Multi-stakeholder collaboration to ensure that the rights and interests of both consumers and suppliers are protected;
  • Educating and empowering consumers by providing platforms for user-friendly and up-to-date comparisons of service offers and tariffs;
  • Informing consumers about legal provisions and complaint/redress procedures and promoting a culture of cybersecurity; 
  • Ensuring consumers are not bound to a specific mobile service provider or app, and should retain their ability to choose and switch between providers.
Identifying pro-active policy and regulatory measures as well as co-regulatory and self-regulatory initiatives that educate and empower consumers is essential to protect the rights of all users in an open, transparent and inclusive digital world.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

UN Guidelines breakthrough: A big step forward for consumer protection

The UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection are the global blueprint for consumer protection. Consumer International's (CI) Director General, Amanda Long reports on a historic meeting in Geneva where the final draft of the revised Guidelines were agreed following 3 years of contribution by CI on behalf of its Members. 

Last week I had the honour of attending a special meeting at the UN Headquarters in Geneva.

Together with government delegations, consumer representatives and experts, the meeting agreed the final draft of the revised UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection that will be presented to the UN General Assembly for adoption before the end of the year.

Big wins for consumers include proposals to:
  • Create an Intergovernmental Group of Experts (IGE) on consumer protection law and policy to monitor the implementation of the Guidelines, serve as a forum for exchange of best practices and provide technical cooperation and capacity building to developing countries and economies in transition;
  • Add guidance on electronic commerce, financial services, public utilities, good business practices and international cooperation;
  • Include parity of treatment between online and offline consumers and protection of consumer privacy.

For CI this has been a long but important journey. On behalf of our Members we have played a central role in the revision of the UN Guidelines for nearly three years, contributing detailed comments and recommendations at every step of the way.

     The revision was long overdue. The majority of the Guidelines were written before 1985 – five years before the birth of the World Wide Web and well before mobile phones became such a regular part of many people’s lives.

     A collaborative effort

     CI has been at the heart of the action for a number of years. Starting back in 2013, we were the first to produce a full set of detailed recommendations.

     We have worked closely with our Members, as well as UNCTAD staff and member states to contribute to the final draft that was before us last week.

     Real progress

     The new text allows the Guidelines to remain the ground breaking international instrument to strengthen and enhance consumer protection globally.  

     I was particularly pleased with the high level of commitment to establish an IGE to support and monitor implementation of the Guidelines. This really will be key to ensuring effective application.
     The Next step

     Of course we didn’t get everything we wanted. Failure to include Access to Knowledge and responsible marketing in specific sectors such as food, drink and tobacco, are major omissions and issues we must continue to support through other means.

     Ensuring the revised Guidelines improve protection for consumers around the world is the real challenge we face, but it is one that CI is eager to start work on. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

CI priority focus on trade: Towards a positive consumer agenda on world trade

Consumers International (CI) is currently developing important work on international trade as a key part of our priority programmes. CI’s activities will aim to ensure that consumers are at the heart of trade negotiations and agreements around the globe. 

Our Director General Amanda Long outlines how we can push forward a positive consumer rights agenda for trade, and ensure the voice of consumers is heard and acted upon in trade discussions between different countries, regions and under the umbrella of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). 

We – the consumers – are the people that make trade work. We are the largest constituency in the economy and should be one of the main beneficiaries of trade, yet business, governments and international organisations do not always get to hear the voice of consumers. 

It’s time we changed this. In an increasingly globalised and digitalised world, there is real potential for consumers to benefit more through trade.

As the international federation of consumer organisations, CI can play a crucial role in developing a positive consumer agenda on trade. Together with our Member organisations and other stakeholders, we are developing an ambitious agenda that both responds to current issues and clearly outlines a vision for how trade can work for consumers. 

CI is in active dialogue with the WTO and other key global organisations to substantially further develop our trade programme.  This includes exploring multi-national campaigning and influencing on trade and trade issues with our Members, as well as continuing our work to influence current trade negotiations and agreements such as TPP, TTIP (through our co-ordination and support for the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue), and developing our focus on future agreements and negotiations.

Can you hear us now? Making the consumer voice heard in global trade discussions.

Consumer representatives need to assert their right to be at the table and have the skills and evidence to be heard in the trade debate. With the proliferation of regional and bilateral free trade agreements, currently negotiated deals are more secretive than those that have taken place under the WTO umbrella. 

We want to develop effective strategies to ensure increased transparency and accountability. We also want to influence current trade negotiations and set the agenda for future trade talks. 

Moreover, consumer representatives need to move with the times. Trade negotiations increasingly address new areas of policy making that have a profound effect on consumers. These days, trade negotiations are less about cutting tariffs, and more about behind the border issues such as national regulations and standards. 

So we need to adapt our agenda and take a look at how trade negotiations impact such areas of genuine consumer interest like food safety, data flows, and financial services. 

The nature of trade is also changing as a result of technology and trade processes are affected too due to digital technology. This development has real potential. It could perhaps be the most democratic form of trade, with consumers themselves driving business. But it also comes with its own set of challenges that we need to address.

Towards a positive consumer agenda on trade

Looking at trade from the consumer perspective is, however, more than just about choice and value.

Consumers have legitimate interests and concerns that are as central to consumption as product variety and prices. Here we need to think about consumer safety, information and redress.  And this all comes down to trust – consumers want to be able to trust the products and services they buy and the companies that provide them. For example:

·                     They want to trust that the toys their children play with are safe.
·                     They want to trust the nutrition and health claims made on food packages.
·                     And they want to trust that they can seek adequate redress when their rights are violated.

That’s why we need to understand the role of trust in building a solid and respected trading system and find ways to promote trade whilst respecting consumers’ concerns.

Put consumers’ concerns and needs at the heart of the international trade agenda and reap the benefits of trust and engagement. Consumers are key to making trade happen, so start with the end in mind – trust and engagement.   

Just to get started, how would trade negotiations and agreements look like if they focused on the needs and concerns of consumers?

1.       Listen to consumers
      The consumer voice and consumer representatives need to be recognised as key relevant parties in trade negotiations and be given an opportunity to provide input and comment. This is especially important in the context of negotiations that are increasingly about regulations, and thus have important implications for consumer safety and protection. 

2.      Respect consumer concerns.
It is essential for trade negotiators to recognise that consumers have vital concerns in relation to safety, public health and the environment that were often hard fought and won. By respecting their concerns, vital consumer trust can be built.

3.       Tackle corruption and lack of competition.
The focus should be on providing a competitive marketplace where the reduction of costs for companies will be transferred to consumers in terms of prices and choice.

4.       Focus on how consumers are using digital technology.
A positive agenda for delivering consumer benefits would address newly emerging issues of buying online across borders. This means addressing gaps in the current IP rules. Improving warranties and online dispute resolution will also have to be central elements. 

Putting consumers at the heart of trade

Consumers matter in trade. Without consumers there wouldn't be much trade. 

However, in the current world of trade negotiations, the voice of the consumer is rarely heard. This needs to change. 

If the consumer voice had a place at the table to provide input and comment into the development of trade agreements, we could create better trade deals that meet consumers’ needs and concerns.  Bringing both economic and social benefits, strong and effective consumer protection can play an important role in positively underpinning economies around the world and the global trading system.

The development of CI’s focus on international trade as a key part of our priority programmes will help push forward a positive consumer rights agenda for trade and ensure that the consumer voice is at the heart of trade discussions around the globe. 

Friday, 5 June 2015

Towards a Magna Carta for the Internet

Speaking at the Web We Want Festival at the Southbank Centre, London, CI’s Director General Amanda Long explains why a ‘Magna Carta’ for the web could be the vehicle to delivering established consumer rights for everyday digital consumers.  

The concept for developing a Magna Carta for the web is an initiative being taken by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web Foundation.

The web has transformed consumer experiences, with the Internet fundamentally changing for the better how people interact and transact with markets. 

We can now engage at a time of our choosing, draw on a massive volume and range of information, select from unprecedented choice; all with access to global markets on hand held devices. 

The Internet also transforms notions of what it actually is to be a consumer – we’re pro-consumers and collaborators on the web. Creating, curating and sharing content including rating and reviewing our experiences.

Because the web grants access to a media for the masses, where information flows bottom up, at scale, for the first time in history, dynamic new forms of consumer empowerment emerge. 

However, whilst the web makes collaboration easy - from forming groups to aggregating demands to achieve a shared goal - these many benefits come with major challenges. 

Technology outpacing consumer protection

Back in 1962, in a landmark address to Congress on Consumer Protection, President Kennedy observed that: “The march of technology….has increased the difficulties of the consumer along with the opportunities; and it has outmoded many of the old laws and regulations and made new legislation necessary.”

For our Members, that observation has worrying relevance today. In our recent Consumer Protection Survey their responses contained a clear message that: The rapid evolution of the digital economy is outmoding and outpacing consumer protection. 76% felt enforcement of consume protection was ineffective in the digital economy – worse than any other sector.

Access is a significant consumer challenge; the majority of consumers are yet to use the internet, let alone see the benefits. There is also the issue of having reliable, good connection alongside, affordability, quality of customer service from the providers and unfair and overlong contracts. User license agreements are often too long, too complex and too inflexible, making consent look like submission.

In some cases consumers are being exploited for their data by companies using it to enable discriminatory, personalised pricing. The question of ‘who owns our data?’ is an increasingly important current issue.

Why we need a Magna Carta for the web

We really are at a vital stage in the evolution of the web, in the digital century it is an essential service. Considering the challenges that consumers face we need to establish users’ rights and ensure they are respected. A ‘Magna Carta’ for the web has the potential to be:
  • global in its application and reach;
  • not subject to the vagaries of implementation that afflict institutional responses;
  • draw directly on the voice, aspirations and priorities of web users in its drafting and reflect them in its final form;
  • an effective tool of self-regulation if companies voluntarily commit to its principles;
  • the stimulus, building political will to develop relevant legislation, and for policy-making in nations.
The web we want

This Magna Carta initiative represents an ideal opportunity to articulate a vision of the web where:
  • Innovation can still move fast, without playing fast and loose with established rights;
  • Commercial success online is based not on a business model that exploits users, but on ensuring users are better able to exploit all the potential of all of the web.
The ‘Magna Carta’ could be the vehicle to deliver this and consumer rights have the potential to be one of the key agents for change globally.