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EU Digital Market : consumer protection must be top priority

EESC Consumer Day in Malta revealed the need for better regulation.

The intensive and revealing discussions which took place at the EESC's European Consumer Day 2017, celebrated in Malta on 21 March, showed how important the Commission’s  Fitness Check of the Digital Market is. Many of the standards which are fully accepted in the real world are ignored when consumers, traders and providers interact in the virtual world. 37% of e-commerce and booking websites for travel, entertainment, clothing, electronic goods and financial services do not even respect basic consumer rights and most of the cross-border complaints – 68% in total - received by European consumer centres in 2015 were related to e-commerce. But appropriate regulation of e-commerce is not the only issue to give headaches to policy- and decision-makers: self-driving cars with the related risks and responsibilities, geoblocking, data protection, etc. all require better regulation. The discussions showed there is huge room for improvement of consumer protection and access to the digital world all over Europe.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) organised its 2017 European Consumer Day in Malta on 21 March. The event, which gathered IT experts, policy makers, representatives from business and consumer organisations and EESC members, focused on The Digital Single Market: How does it benefit consumers?.

In his opening speech, EESC Vice-President Goncalo Lobo Xavier underlined the EESC's role in giving civil society a voice and a forum where it can raise its concerns also with regard to the the Digital Market. Referring to the huge potential of a single Digital Market, Mr Lobo Xavier pointed to the collaborative economy : « The Digital Market can play a major role in the collaborative economy, provided consumer rights are protected. We need to put in place proper regulation and I am optimistic that we’ll get it right".  The Maltese Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberites, Helena Dalli stressed the need to increase consumers' confidence in the digital market by strengthening security - safeguarding personal data, protection against fraud or any form of discrimination- for consumers and entrepreneurs alike. In a video message, Commissioner Vera Jourova referred to the ongoing "Fitness Check", which aims to verify whether consumer protection rules currently in force are still fit for purpose. The report should be finished by end of spring and will also include the Commission’s proposals for both legislative and non-legislative follow-up actions.

Antonio Longo, president of the EESC's permanent study group on the Digital Agenda, said that the digital society should connect, not divide. « We need to become a connected society. » Education is therefore a fundamental issue to enable people to solve the economic and social challenges that digitalisation brings along. In many countries children are enrolled in schools online, tax declarations are submitted online, people register for public events online, etc. That means that we all have to be digitally literate. In all relevant opinions the EESC has underlined that digital literacy is key and that the lack of digital skills is still a fundamental problem in Europe. Education needs to include IT knowledge, but also raise awareness of the economic importance of big data.

Ursula Pachl from BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, criticised many European initiatives and regulations for being too limited in scope or failing to address important issues, particularly children protection, mentioning the Audiovisual Media Services Directive as failing to address problems related to the marketing of unhealthy food for children. She also referred to the example of "my friend Cayla", a doll which not only does not comply with consumer and data protection laws, but also involves saftey risks. Other security challenges concern data protection. For instance Whatsapp, Facebook, or Google need to be called to account. "Consumers need to be in control of their data and products" is the credo of Europe's consumer voice, proposing regulation on data ownership, personal data protection, data security and product and services liability. Likewise Jens Henriksson from ANEC (European Consumer Voice in Standardisation) reminded participants that access to products and services is a basic consumer right which must also apply to the digital market. The Web Accessibility Directive is therefore a step forward which will benefit 80 million people with disabilities and 150 million people aged over 50. « A deeper and fairer single market must be one of Europe’s priorities », he concluded.

Joost Vantomme from the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association outlined the advantages of smart mobility - including self-driving vehicles - for consumers, but also referred to the policy challenges the sector is facing, including safety and liability, ethics, labour time, network connectivity and cyber resilience, access to data, etc.

A fertile ground for the sustainable development of the collaborative economy is the accommodation industry, as highlighted in the discussion between Victorija Molnar from the European Holiday Home Association and Pauline Azzopardi from the Maltese Association for Consumer Rights . But the gaps in regulations must not only be closed soon, but also standardised over whole Europe.

« Todays discussions opened our eyes to the need to remove some obstacles before consumers, but also SMEs, can fully benefit from the huge opportunities the Digital Market brings», concluded Martin Siecker, President of the EESC Section for the Single Market, Production and Consumption. « For citizens and civil society, it is important to feel safe when ‘ immersing’ in the digital world. Therefore our common endeavour needs to be to provide Europe as a whole with the necessary regulation in order to protect the weakest link in the Digital Market chain, namely consumers. »

More on the discussion including power point presentations are provided at the EESC webpage.

For more information, please contact:

Silvia Aumair  |  E-mail: press@eesc.europa.eu  |  Tel: +32 2 546 8141  |  @EESC_PRESS

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