Agustin Reyna, Senior Legal Officer at BEUC – The European Consumer Organisation outlines the 3 key areas needed from the Digital Single Market Strategy…
Success of the European Commission’s Digital Single Market (DSM) strategy 1 published last May depends on the tangible benefits it will deliver to consumers. It is crucial that the strategy guarantees 3 principles: trust, choice and protection.
- Strengthening trust means that consumers should benefit from a high level of protection within an efficient and enforceable legal framework. Consumers must be able to count on certain rights that would apply to both online and offline transactions. These rights should be technologically neutral and as far as possible future proof.
- A Digital Single Market should be built on choice. This includes the choice of goods, services and digital content, platforms and traders, payment methods, delivery operators and internet access providers. The internet is by nature borderless; consumers do not necessarily make a distinction between purchases from a local retailer or from a trader in another member state. Consumers want to access these products. It is fundamental that the European Union grants this access by bringing down artificial barriers within the single market.
- The third pillar is about guaranteeing protection against unfair and anticompetitive businesses behaviour. Building trust and guaranteeing choice are insufficient if consumers cannot exercise their rights and protect themselves when problems arise.
The European Commission unveiled the first set of proposals 2 that stem from the Digital Single Market strategy: one on portability of online subscriptions for travellers in the EU, accompanied by a plan on the next steps of the copyright reform, and 2 proposals on consumer contractual rights for digital content products and goods bought online.
So will these proposals actually improve consumers’ lives?’
The proposal on portability of online subscriptions is definitely a step in the right direction. Consumers feel frustrated when they travel and cannot access certain services like online video subscriptions that they have bought in their home countries. This proposal will only benefit consumers travelling within the EU. More needs to be done to tackle the problem of geo-blocking and territorial discrimination, which is when consumers are unable to access online services from other member states, even if those contents like films, TV programmes and series are not available in their own countries in the first place.
On copyright, the European Commission is looking to revise the Satellite and Cable Directive. As expressed in our response 3 to the consultation on the revision of this directive, BEUC believes that the problem of geo-blocking in the audiovisual sector can and should be solved through clarifying and facilitating the clearance of rights for the purpose of cross-border access of audiovisual services and consequently bringing wider and more competitive choices to consumers.
The proposal on guarantee rights for digital content is another positive development for consumers. This proposal introduces for the first time specific rights for consumers at EU level when music files, eBooks or films malfunction or cannot be accessed. BEUC asked for this in the past and welcomed the Commission’s decision to come forward with a draft law which modernises and adapts consumer rights to the online environment.
Unfortunately, these positive developments are offset by the proposal on online purchases of tangible goods. This draft law would give consumers different rights when they buy a physical good, such as a bicycle, a PC or a fridge, online or in a shop. For example, if a Swedish consumer buys a stereo in a shop in Stockholm, he or she would enjoy a 3-year guarantee period in case the product turns out to be defective. But, if the consumer buys the same stereo from the same retailer online he or she will only have a 2 year legal guarantee under the Commission proposal. This fundamental flaw does not match the objective of developing a digital single market which the consumer can trust because they could end up losing protection they already have 4 when shopping online.
The European Parliament and national governments will soon start working on these proposals. They must rise to the challenge of defending consumer rights.
To do this, they should support the proposals on portability and digital content rights and address the flaws in the proposal on online purchases of tangible goods. Any strategy which sets out to improve consumer rights but ends up weakening some of them will fail.
Senior Legal Officer
BEUC – The European Consumer Organisation