Online consumers need better protection, says international watchdog

Web can help consumers' voices be heard and reveal scale of problems, says global watchdog

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 7:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2014, 2:54am

Governments around the world are slow in adopting technology to protect consumers' rights, a global consumer watchdog federation says.

"Governments are not keeping pace with technological development when it comes to consumers' digital rights, which would include privacy, data abuse, e-commerce and online redress," Consumers International director general Amanda Long said yesterday.

It was now time for authorities and watchdogs the world over to step up their online presence, said Long, who was in Hong Kong for a symposium hosted by the Consumer Council.

Governments [around the world] are not keeping pace with technology
Amanda Long

A good example Long had observed was in Britain.

The authorities created an online log for consumers to file their grievances after they received many complaints against a particular car model last year, she said. The move allowed consumers' voices to be heard, and after it was implemented, the number of complaints surged, showing the magnitude of the problem.

In the Netherlands, consumers can collectively switch to another power supplier simply by signing up on a website, Long said. An independent organisation would then help the group of consumers negotiate with multiple suppliers to reach a deal on their energy supply.

The examples demonstrated the uses of online platforms in enhancing consumer rights, Long said. Consumer watchdogs could also set up online dispute resolution mechanisms to work across borders, she said.

Chen Jian, China Consumers' Association director of law and theory research, told the symposium that new laws governing online shopping were put in place on the mainland in March.

Under the new rules, online shoppers on websites like Taobao are guaranteed a seven-day refund period for most goods. Exemptions included fresh or tailor-made products, software, newspapers and magazines.

"Online shoppers make their decisions based on product descriptions, pictures and buyers' comments. The information may not be adequate and consumers were not well protected [before the law was introduced]," Chen said, adding that similar refund systems were also in place in the United States, European Union countries, Taiwan and Japan.

Consumer Council chief executive Gilly Wong Fung-han said Hongkongers were not covered by the mainland's new law.

But the watchdog was facilitating exchanges with the mainland authorities to explore the possibility of extending the refund arrangement to Hong Kong, she said. "There are technical difficulties, such as differences in legal systems and the postal fees involved," Wong said.