How best to ensure online consumer protection: this was the focus of the 20th European Consumer Day, a joint event of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Bulgarian Economic and Social Council held in Sofia on 20 March. The conference "The digital economy: what deal for consumers" was an opportunity for experts and policy-makers to discuss the new challenges to consumer protection posed by digitalisation from both a European and a national perspective.
Ways to improve consumer protection
"The European project is all about managing change while respecting rights and protecting humanity", said Martin Siecker, president of the EESC's Section for the Single Market, Production and Consumption. He emphasised that as the digital economy provides consumer choice, comfort and convenience, it is vital to make sure that consumer protection is maintained online as well as offline.
Francisco Fonseca Morillo, Deputy Director-General of the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers of the European Commission, pointed out that European consumers enjoy the highest level of consumer protection in the world – both offline and online – but "recent large scale scandals such as massive flight cancellations have underlined some weaknesses in consumer rights protection". He added that the rules therefore had to be better applied and enforced. The Commission would present a New Deal for Consumers in April to modernise the existing rules while improving consumer protection.
Speakers agreed that one of the areas where improvement was needed was consumer information on products and services. "As we are all aware, too much information kills information," noted Mr Siecker, drawing attention to online terms and conditions, which often are too long or unclear. It is estimated that around 1 % of the population worldwide reads such terms and conditions, while 72% do not know what kind of information is collected about them by companies online.
Bulgarian priorities for a digital future
As our lives become increasingly dependent on new technologies consumers will need more safeguards. The Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU has launched an initiative to support the development of the digital single market by putting forward legislative amendments aimed at removing the main obstacles under contract law to cross-border trade. "Those amendments will help to improve the situation by providing harmonised rules on digital content and selling goods on the digital market. We will strengthen trust in the digital economy across the EU and that will contribute to economic growth and better operation of the internal market", said Emil Karanikolov, Bulgarian Minister for the Economy.
Lalko Dulevski, president of the Bulgarian Economic and Social Council, was concerned about the risks that children could face in the digital era. He warned that due to growing income inequalities many children might not have a chance to gain the skills required to access a transformed labour market. "This is a big issue that is a particular focus of our attention. This is about preparing the next generation and preventing the risk of them being excluded from the economy and the market because of changes brought by digitalisation," noted Mr Dulevski.
Meanwhile, Bulgarian MEP Eva Maydell drew attention to the free flow of data, which is particularly important for the next generation of digital services. It is estimated that the public sector would have EUR 1.4 billion in additional revenue if data localisation restrictions were removed. "Free flow of data would make it easier for SMEs and start-ups to develop new innovative services and enter new markets. This is a key dossier that we are currently working on in the EP and which will hopefully be concluded during the Bulgarian presidency," said Ms Maydell.
The digital divide persists
Today more than 44 % of the world's population is online, compared to 1 % twenty years ago. Last year, 87% of European citizens had access to the internet and 57% purchased goods or services online. However, there are still significant disparities between European countries: in 2017, 82% of the British population bought goods or services online, while the figure was just 16% for Romanians.