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German Justice Minister Rules On E-Commerce

Germany's Federal Ministry of Justice has tabled legislation to cover online sales, provide for consumers' rights to cancel agreements and impose extensive obligations on businesses to provide information.

Federal Minister of Justice Herta Däubler-Gmelin expects the measure to improve consumer protection for mail order sales and e-commerce.

"Where goods and services are ordered by mail or via the Internet, consumers cannot check them beforehand and there is no personal contact with the sales staff," said the Minister, in support of the legislative proposal in Bonn. "Consequently, consumers must be able to rely on the information provided."

In the terms of the proposal, companies which sell goods by e-mail, videotext or Internet must allow their clients to withdraw from the deal more easily. They should have the option of canceling a sale before a set deadline, without giving reasons, and of sending the goods back.

Companies will also be obliged to give clients extensive information, which is easy to understand and gives product specifications, on price and any delivery or shipment costs. Goods must also have a return address for client inquiries and provide information on customer service and guarantee conditions.

"More extensive consumer protection needs clear legislation to fit the new world of online business," said Däubler-Gmelin. She added that new ways of doing business would only find acceptance when they were not accompanied by unjustified risks.

This legislative proposal will replace the EU's Distance Sales Directive of May 1997 in German law. Distance sales are defined as commerce via mail order, telephone, fax, e-mail, Internet, videotext or comparable media. The proposal also covers unsolicited goods or advertising and indemnification in the case of misuse of credit or EC cards.

The cabinet will decide on the proposal this fall.