The Digital Consumer – Opportunities and Challenges

Speech on the European Consumer Summit, Brussels,1st of April 2014

Commissioner, ministers, ladies and gentlemen […]

We are living in a digital age, where technology is developing rapidly. For many people, the phone is the new computer – for others, a lack of internet access is a barrier against participation in the new marketplace. We need to pay attention to how technological change affects consumers. So I am very pleased that the Commission has made the “digital consumer” the key topic for the Summit.

I would like to take the opportunity to present a few national experiences and concerns. The internet and new technologies open new opportunities for consumers. It also raises new challenges that we need to respond to.

First of all, the internet gives us a wider choice of products and services, and lower prices – if we have access. We are in a fortunate situation in Norway, with very high broadband penetration – and a large share of the population as active internet users. Many European countries are not in the same situation. Therefore, I think that the EU’s focus on internet access for all is very important.  

Secondly, new technologies can make our life easier. Take digital comparison tools – like price and product comparison websites – as an example. These tools can help us get an overview of the different alternatives in the market.

Norwegian authorities have been exploring the possibilities in this field. We have developed a few comparison tools by public funding. I would like to mention the Financial Portal, which provides trustworthy and comparable information on different financial services. We have also made similar comparison tools for dentist services and for electricity.

The Commission has promoted the development of comparison sites, which is good – because such tools will be increasingly important in the future.

New technologies can also lead to better service to all groups in society. In Norway, all websites - both public and private – must follow standards for accessibility. My government will focus on universal design in information technology, to make solutions available for everyone – including elderly and disabled people.

We are becoming increasingly dependent on new technology and internet access. For this reason, we need to take the challenges in the digital field seriously. So what are the key consumer concerns?

First of all, we want it to work. As consumers, we do not really care about who is responsible for what; devices, connection, content. We just want it to work – all the time and reasonably well.

Secondly, we want fair deals – without being experts on how it works. We don’t want to spend unnecessary time gathering information and educating ourselves on legalistic details. And most of us don’t want to be locked in to a deal or contract for an unreasonably long time.

Our government is concerned that full harmonization of rules in the telecom area may affect consumer rights in a negative way. We believe in more flexible solutions, where member states can have a higher level of consumer protection.

Thirdly, we want to decide for ourselves what our internet line will be used for. We do not want our internet operator to prioritize their commercial partners’ content. In short, as consumers we want internet traffic to be neutral.

Norwegian authorities are concerned with net neutrality. We welcome the Commission’s initiative to tackle the subject in the Connected Continent package. But we will urge the commission to take a flexible approach to regulation in this very dynamic market. We are contributing in the negotiations – and hope the final decision will promote a neutral and open internet – that facilitates competition, choice and innovation.

Finally, we want to be safe when we are shopping online. We need to be safe that personal information is handled in a good way. This is often not the case.

A recent survey shows that a majority of Norwegian consumers are concerned about how business handles their personal information online. The protection of consumer privacy is not only limited to online shopping. Many applications in our smart phones also gather information about us. With new technologies, information about consumer habits has become a retail commodity.

Maybe it is time to stop for a second, and ask: why does the flashlight-app demand access to the telephones identity, location and internet access? […] Information about your location might not be a big deal. But when data from different services are put together – so called Big Data– it becomes challenging. Big Data enables analysis of consumer behavior on a very detailed level – often without the consumers’ knowledge. We need to take this issue seriously.

And we are pleased that the European Commission is taking action. The Commission’s proposal for a regulation on personal data protection will hopefully straighten out some of the imbalances in this field.

Regarding the challenges that I have mentioned, it is important that we take vulnerable groups into account – for example children, elderly and the disabled. We need to think about consumer vulnerability when we make policies.

In conclusion, I think it is important to pay close attention to developments on the digital field. Internet and new technology offer many opportunities – and challenges. The Commission’s initiatives in this field are therefore important. We will follow the developments closely. Thank you.