Designing the consumer policy for a digital future

Speech on the European Consumer Summit 2015, Brussels

Commissioner, ministers, ladies and gentlemen.

There is a digital revolution going on, which has changed the way we consume – and will continue to do so for many years to come. The Commission has just presented the Digital Single Market (DSM) Strategy, which will update European policies to match “the digital consumer”.

The timing is just right for us to come together and discuss consumer issues.

Therefore, the Consumer Summit is an opportunity to start the process of designing a consumer policy for the digital future.

I would like to share some experiences and concerns from Norway, to contribute to the discussion. I will focus on three consumer policy areas that are greatly affected by the internet and new technologies; information, rights and enforcement.

First of all, the internet and new technologies have changed our whole approach to consumer information. For most Norwegians, who like to think of themselves as highly digital, the internet is the number one source of information – also when they are acting as consumers.

If you want to buy a new phone, you usually go online to “google” the different options, before you order it online or go to the store to buy one.

If you want to travel, you will probably go online to compare prices on flights and make a booking. Maybe you will use a sharing service like Air-bnb for accommodation.

Online platforms make our lives as consumers easier. Search engines can help us find the relevant website for our purchase. Websites where you can compare products can help us get an overview of the different alternatives, and make the best choice.

Norwegian consumer authorities have developed several digital comparison tools by public funding. At the Summit last year, I mentioned some of these tools, on financial services, electricity and dental services.

Since then, we have developed a few more tools for smart-phones and tablets;

  • One – a popular one – for educating children in personal finance, and
  • One calculating consumer rights when flights are running late or being cancelled - an experience I would guess many of you have as consumers.

We are also currently exploring a new tool for comparison of products and prices in grocery stores.

The fact that consumers get their information from online platforms makes it important that the platforms respect and follow basic criteria. Digital comparison tools should be transparent about their business model, and clearly identify advertising on their websites or apps.

They should provide information about their market coverage, and be impartial in how they perform comparisons.

Many of these principles also apply to search engines. It is important that search engines like for instance Google, show the most relevant result to the consumer – not the results that are most profitable for the company. It is also important that all online platforms are universally designed and available for everyone.

Availability, trust and objectivity are basic values for all consumer information.

The Commission has announced that it will do a comprehensive analysis on the role of online platforms, as part of the DSM strategy. I hope that this analysis will cover central issues regarding digital consumer information. I am looking forward to the results.

My second point; internet and new technologies challenge the traditional approach to consumer rights.

  • For the authorities, it is challenging to update consumer laws to the reality in rapidly changing markets.
  • For consumers, it is challenging to know what rights they have when they are online.

Consumer rights in new digital technologies can often appear unclear. Let’s say that you own a device, like a smart-phone or computer tablet, and buy e-books, music or apps for it.

  • Do you own the content you have paid for?
  • Can you transfer your content to other devices?
  • Do you actually need to buy new books, movies and films again next time you get yourself a new device?

When you use Facebook and other online services, it is widely known that you “pay with your personal information”. When you pay for a product with money, you get reimbursed – or you get your money back - if there is a fundamental breach of contract. But how do you get re-dress if you only paid with personal details?

I am aware that the Commission, as part of the DSM strategy, wants to harmonize EU rules on contracts and consumer protection online. This initiative will hopefully solve many of the challenges concerning consumer rights online.

Still, it is important that national consumer protection will not be weakened as a result. Consumers should think of Europe as the market place where their rights and interests are protected. Therefore, I am concerned about areas where Norway has a strong consumer protection – like the sellers obligation to answer for faulty consumer goods up to 5 year in certain cases. Let’s make sure that Europe this time is seen as the one delivering added values to consumers – and to not to lower the standard of consumer protection.

My third point; internet and new technologies also challenge enforcement of consumer law. As e-commerce is becoming an ordinary way of shopping for consumers, it is more important than ever that consumer rights and product safety rules are respected, and enforced properly – also across borders.

We are evaluating the role of our own national enforcement agency – the Consumer Ombudsman – to assess whether it has the right policy tools to ensure compliance with the law in the current environment.

I appreciate that these concerns are addressed in the DSM strategy. I am aware that the Commission will review the CPC regulation, to strengthen the policy tools of national enforcers, and improve the cooperation on enforcement between the different European countries.

We are following this process closely; to make sure our national evaluation is coordinated with the European initiative.

To conclude; the digital revolution has changed the way we consume and communicate, and it will continue to do so in the years ahead. I believe we need to adapt our consumer policy to “the digital consumer” – especially in terms of information, rights and enforcement.

The digital consumer is one of my top priorities as consumer minister. Our government is also currently preparing a white paper on a new digital agenda for Norway, scheduled for spring 2016.

We look forward to working with the Commission and the other institutions in designing a European consumer policy for the digital future.

Thank you for your attention.