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EU Considers Digital Consumer Protection Crackdown

European regulators claim that consumers need greater online protection

A consumer who buys a CD on the high street receives a lot more protection than the equivalent buyer online, according to a European legal expert.

In a debate this week – hosted by the European minister for consumer affairs Nyamko Sabuni – Natali Helberger, from the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam, and Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumers’ Organisation (BEUC), will consider how European regulators will improve the protection of consumers online.

“It is necessary to ensure that consumers have stronger protection when purchasing digital services, especially given that more and more goods are purchased in digital format,” said Goyens.

The debate held at the Consumer Rights Conference in Stockholm this week will examine how the purchase of digital content such as software, anti-virus programmes, games and music can be made safer for consumers.

“Digitisation has resulted in a plethora of new business models and new ways of offering digital content to consumers… as a result, a consumer who downloads a piece of music enjoys less protection than a consumer who buys a CD,” said Helberger.

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Last week, an undercover shopping experiment run by the European Commission revealed that 60 percent of cross-border online shopping attempts fail, because many retailers refuse to ship products to key countries within the European Union. The finding is a double embarrassment because users expect the internet to transcend national borders – and the European nations are working to remove barriers to commerce.

The study placed around 11,000 test orders on items such as books, CDs, cameras and clothes – and only 40 percent were successful. Latvia, Belgium, Romania and Bulgaria were found to be hit hardest by barriers to online commerce.

The EU Stockholm debate will also examine if new legislation is needed to protect consumers online or existing rules should be extended to plug holes in online protection. According to BEUC’s Goyens, there is no specific consumer protection at EU level in this area and member country’s laws are quite diverse.

“In BEUC’s opinion the proposed directive on consumer rights is indeed the place to tackle problems regarding interoperability, information requirements, unfair contractual terms, right of withdrawal, legal guarantees and remedies in relation to digital content contracts,” she said. “Existing general principles on the sales of goods and services could be the foundation for future regulation, if tailored to the specific requirements and characteristics of digital products.”

Earlier this month, Symantec warned in a report that online criminals are duping members of the public into purchasing rogue security software, by employing increasingly persuasive online scare tactics.