The role of business in protecting onlineconsumers

16 Apr 2018 16:30h - 18:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports from the UNCTAD E-Commerce Week 2018]

This event was co-organised by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and Customers International and addressed the question of how customers’ trust in the digital economy could be enhanced while their rights are preserved and protected.

The session was opened and moderated by Ms Teresa Moreira (Head of Competition and Consumer Policies Branch, UNCTAD). In her opening remarks, Moreira recalled the 2017 CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust which shows that the key reason among consumers who never shop online is a lack of trust. She went on to explain that the protection of consumers is a shared responsibility between states and businesses as well as customers. She further pointed out that the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection, adopted in 1985 and last revisited in 2015, remains one of the most relevant document in terms of customer protection legislation.

Ms Amanda Long (Director General, Consumers International) stated that the global drive to increase the access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) needs to be followed through to create consumer trust. She identified the lack of access to e-commerce services as one of the main challenges, while mentioning many different issues ranging from the use of unfair data caps by service providers to payment frauds. Long also addressed the issue of the lack of customer security laws in many countries and argued that businesses acting in the interest of customers also act in the interest of sustainable growth. Therefore, according to the speaker, the quickest impact for customer protection could be achieved by bringing together all the key players to gather around specific problems.

Ms Lisa Felton (Head of Services Regulation, Vodafone) explained that nowadays, companies provide a large variety of services and that regulations do not reflect that reality. Regulations are usually established for specific sectors, but they need to address cross-sectoral issues in order to be effective. Additionally, anti-trust regulations should be enhanced as we see the emergence of digital bottle-necks, for example through powerful technology firms, which threaten customers and competing businesses alike.

As Felton further pointed out, customer service excellence and the embedding of customer protection into their business practices have been a recipe for success for the telecom provider. Moreover, she spoke about the need for businesses to work closer with regulators in order to establish trust marks and detailed standards.

Mr Babatunde Irukera (Director General, Consumer Protection Agency, Nigeria) said that customer protection is vital for the growth of e-commerce. In this regard, he elaborated on the Nigerian case in which his agency met with all the digital retail chief executives to identify key issues and challenges. This process allowed them to compile a document with guiding principles for e-commerce that serves as an ethical code. The most important principles therein are privacy, the need for redress mechanisms and data transparency.

Ms Kimberley Botwright (Programme Lead for Economic Governance, World Economic Forum (WEF)) mentioned the very different views that stakeholders have on the matter. She also briefly introduced the work of the WEF in collaboration with the Word Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Trade Platform on the challenges of digital commerce. In this context, the WEF has already published scoping papers regarding e-signatures and e-payments.

Botwright stressed the importance of trust for consumers and spoke about the importance of implementing regulations that go beyond the baselines and are enabled through public-private partnerships in a way that allows small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to grow.

Mr Paul Nagle (Director of International Regulatory Affairs, Alibaba) noted the importance of languages and cultural sensitivity for the establishing of trust. He spoke about the necessity for e-commerce businesses to take consumer expectations into account. He mentioned Alibaba’s e-founders programme that is organised in collaboration with UNCTAD and teaches SMEs about consumer protection. In addition to this programme, he said that companies should be proactive in their relationship with consumers and be transparent in their practices.

Dr Ying Yu (Researcher, Wolfon College of the Oxford University) spoke about the reasons why businesses need to consider consumer protection and put robust dispute settlement mechanisms in place. For this purpose, she introduced the widely accepted concept of a letter of credit, which is widely accepted in international trade. This concept offers a guarantee to both parties and therefore facilitates mutual trust. Intermediary services, such as PayPal function according to this principle. She summed up her argument in saying: ‘no trust, no business.’


By Cedric Amon