Panel 1: Consumer Protection in Electronic Commerce

Moderator: Karen Coyle, CPSR

Benoit De Bayer, Centre de droit de la consummation, Belgium

Phillip McKee, National Consumer's League, USA

Nathalie St. Pierre, Fédération Nationale des Associations de Consommateurs du Quebec

Louise Sylvan, Vice President of Consumers' International and Chief Executive of the Australian Consumers' Association

Bjorn Erik Thon, Consumer Council of Norway

Radisson Hotel 100 Kent St. Ottawa, Ontario

9:45 AM - Panel 1 - Consumer Protection in Electronic Commerce

Report by Yaman Akdeniz,, Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK)

Will the traditional consumer protections apply in the electronic commerce environment? Who will determine the jurisdiction? Who will enforce fraud protections? How will contracts be signed and guarantees be enforced?

Karen Coyle, Western Regional Director, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, ( chaired the consumer protection in electronic commerce panel and questioned where the traditional consumer protections apply within the electronic commerce environment and how does the consumer issue emerge in the information age.

Louise Sylvan, Vice President of Consumers' International and Chief Executive of the Australian Consumers' Association was the first speaker and her paper was entitled Consumer Protection in E-Commerce and deals with consumers in business and commercial terms. The principles come from an Australain paper developed by the National Council in Australia in April 1998 and was developed by the government, business and consumers together. (See http://www.dist

At least some level of consumer protection is needed, according to Ms Sylvan. Technology neutrality is important and technology makes the difference for e-commerce. Laws should apply irrespective of the technology used for transactions in e-commerce. Of course these involve complicated jurisdictional issues and these need to be resolved, said Ms Sylvan.

Identification of the seller and jurisdiction is another important issue to be dealt and the a web site's url is not enough to resolve this. The amount of information to be provided and disclosed to the consumers by the sellers is a critical point to be resolved. Clarity is another contract issue and the contracts and terms and conditions should be presented in clear and easy ways. Confirmation is important for consumers and authentication of consumer identity is needed and if necessary consumers should have the possibility to remain anonymous. Payment options need to be clear according to Ms Sylvan and dispute resolutions should be available to consumers. These need to be quick and fair and sellers need to refer to these procedures in their web pages.

According to Ms Sylvan the forthcoming OECD Guidelines are in state of flux, and Ms Sylvan was critical of the forthcoming and non-binding OECD principles. "1st draft okay, "gutted" 2nd draft," said Ms Sylvan on the OECD guidelines.

Nathalie St-Pierre presented her paper, "The Electronic Market Place: Factors Affecting E-Commerce, based on a study by the Information Highway and Canadian Communications Household Study (EKOS)". The factors affecting electronic commerce, namely: prices, privacy, reputation, security, proximety, nationality and the role of the government.

Security is far the most important issue for the development of e-commerce said Ms St-Pierre. Location was a considerable issue for consumers. Nationality was another concern and their statistics indicate that Canadian consumers preferred to buy from Canadians rather than Americans; therefore where does the government stand and what is its role with respect to consumer protection. According to the survey this is mainly a role for the government (66%) rather than the industry (31%). Government should provide the basis for security and consumer protection rather than the industry. According to Ms St-Pierre everybody is dealing with similar issues this survey has a role to play with the actual ongoing discussions within Canada (OCA - Principles - multi-stakeholders task force).

In her conclusion "no principle should be interpreted as affording less protection to consumers than is already provided for in current laws" said Ms St-Pierre. "Adaptable framework of consumer protection subject to ongoing review and modifications in light of changing technologies and marketplaces" are needed.

Phillip McKee, National Consumer's League, USA ( mentioned the work of the Internet Fraud Watch and the main fraud related issue was "auctions", "general merchandise" followed by "Internet services" and these are the three most subject reports to the IFW of the NCL. Consumers are offered these fraudulent services mainly by e-mail. Mr McKee asked the attendees whether they ever heard any refunds from a foreign country ? Another question raised by Mr McKee was where is the consumer protection going in the information age.

Security with privacy is the main concern and issue for consumers according to Bjorn Erik Thon, Consumer Council of Norway. Moreover, these are absolutely crucial issues to be resolved. There is a need to create a secure environment for the development of e-commerce. But consumer organisations do not have the funding and expertise to do that. But it is important that consumers organisations at an international level start to work together on these issues. Another important issue is complaint handlings according to Mr Thon and this is one of the issues that his organisation in Norway is dealing with. How can we build confidence said Mr Thon and work is under way to achieve this goal within Norway.

Benoit De Nayer of the Centre de droit de la consummation, Belgium explained the work of his organisation and said that they are working with issues related to the regulatory environment for consumers for electronic commerce. New electronic commerce is more clever and intelligent said Mr De Nayer as all can be done through the same wire, e.g. advertisement, contract and purchase of goods. De Nayer said in his final remarks that the general requirements for consumer protection is still needed but there may be space for the development of new solutions for e-commerce such as digital signatures.

Final Remarks by the Author:

In conclusion the informative panel shown that the issues within different jurisdictions remain the same and solutions need rather global response as the Internet remains a communication medium without any frontiers. More questions were raised rather than offering many solutions which deserve global attention and that attention will move to the OECD Ministerial conference within the next two days following the GILC conference. One thing is certain and that is the protection of consumers in cyberspace whether they are in Australia, Norway, Canada, USA or Belgium.

Global Internet Liberty Campaign

October 7, 1998

The Public Voice in the Development of Internet Policy