Google gets consumer service ultimatum from German consumer groups

German consumer groups say Google must respond to support requests from users by email to comply with German law

Google received an ultimatum Thursday from German consumer organizations that want it to start answering questions from its users via email.

The Federation of German Consumer Organisations (VZBV) has asked Google to sign an undertaking that it will provide customer service by responding individually to users questions sent by email, said Carola Elbrecht, VZBV's project manager for consumer rights in the digital world at the VZBV.

Signing such a document would expose Google to fines if it breached the undertaking. On the other hand, said Elbrecht, "If Google does not sign it we're going to court."

Germany's Telemedia Act requires businesses to provide an email address to allow customers to contact them quickly.

But, said Elbrecht, "It is not enough to just provide an email address that leads into emptiness, you also need to be able to communicate over it." Responding to users attempting to get their questions answered with automatic replies, as Google does in Germany, is not sufficient, she said.

There's no point in German users of Google's search engine, Google+, YouTube or other services sending the company an email, because they will not get a reply, the VZBV said. Instead, users have to use email forms or dig through the Google help forums to find an answer to their questions, it added.

Anyone sending a mail to support-de@google.com gets an automatic reply in which Google states that due to the large number of emails sent to the address, it is unable to read them. Users are also notified that "due to technical reasons" it is impossible to reply to the mail the user just received. Instead, Google directs the receiver to its forums and support pages.

The lack of contact possibilities via email is a breach of the German Telemedia Act, the VZBV said.

Google could not immediately reply to a request for comment but it was looking into the matter, said Google spokesman Mark Jansen in an email.

VZBV gave Google until May 6 to comply with its demands.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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