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Global E-Commerce Watchdog Urges Consumer Protection

Consumers International, a worldwide consortium of 245 consumer organizations in 111 countries, recently released a new survey that examines e-commerce practices and has recommended legislation to protect global consumers from common pitfalls connected with buying over the Internet.

The group said international guidelines to protect consumers who purchase products via the Net is long overdue and that cross-border e-shopping needs to be more consumer-friendly and secure or e-commerce will never reach its full potential.

Consumers International said it expects to submit specific recommendations to the Consumer Policy Committee of the Organis\zation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) when the OECD meets in Paris on September 8-10 to debate the finalization of consumer protection guidelines.

The OECD committee, comprised of 29 government representatives in addition to business, labor and consumer representatives, has been discussing guidelines known as the Guidelines for Consumer Protection in the Context of Electronic Commerce, for the past two years. The guidelines address e-comm issues including jurisdiction, collection of personal information and redress.

Consumers International maintains that passage of the guidelines have stalled because of powerful lobbying by businesses within the e-commerce industry. The group accuses the industry of pressuring for a more general, vague set of e-comm guidelines.

"The important point is to get some baseline protection in place so that consumers have confidence in using electronic commerce," said Louise Sylvan, vice-president of Consumers International and chief executive of the Australian Consumers Association.

Various problems encountered by Internet shoppers is detailed in a new Consumers International survey, "Consumers@shopping: An International Comparative Study of Electronic Commerce".

The European Union-funded study queried consumer organizations in 11 countries, including Australia, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S. and ordered over 150 products from 17 different countries and then returned most of them. The sites used were of well-known and established e-tailers.

General findings of the study include:

  • One in 10 items never arrived.
  • Two buyers, from the U.K. and Hong Kong, waited over five months for refunds.
  • Almost half - 44 percent - of the products ordered arrived without receipts.
  • Seventy-three percent of traders failed to give crucial contract terms.
  • More than 25 percent gave no address or telephone number.
  • Twenty-four percent were unclear about the total cost of the item that was ordered.

Consumers International said the survey results reveal a strong need for cyber rules of e-commerce conduct.

"Electronic commerce will flourish only when consumers are reassured of real protection in the areas of privacy, security and redress," Sylvan said.

"Enough people are starting to use e- com that its potential can really take off, or it will start to produce horror stories and will falter from mistrust."

For Consumer International's recommendations for e-tailers, see: "Consumers@shopping: An International Comparative Study of Electronic Commerce".