30 countries move to protect online consumers

Spurred to find ways to protect consumers as online shopping grows, the 30 countries belonging to the international economic and social-development group Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) announced Monday an accord on dispute resolution.

After two years of wrangling over the policy document, the Paris-based OECD said its 30 members -- which include the European countries, Australia, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the United States and the United Kingdom among others -- have signed off on a legal framework intended to lead to better policing and resolution of consumer complaints, particularly in cross-border disputes involving e-commerce.

But it remains unclear whether concrete change will come from the policy agreement, which the OECD countries now must find a way to put into effect.

Called the "OECD Recommendation on Consumer Dispute Resolution and Redress," the 13-page document states principles that include:

-- Finding ways that monetary remedies may be more easily recognized and enforced by foreign courts in cross-border cases.

-- Recognizing consumer-protection enforcement to obtain redress for consumers can be helpful in complex cross-border disputes involving fraudulent and deceptive commercial practices.

-- Agreeing that despite the diversity of legal cultures in member countries, a consensus exists on the need for common principles setting out the main characteristics of effective consumer dispute resolution and redress systems.

-- Recognizing that dispute resolution and redress mechanisms for consumers could include out-of-court "dispute resolution services, including online dispute resolution," for consumers and businesses to settle a dispute through the active intervention of a third party.

-- Acknowledging a need for simplified court procedures for small claims.

-- Seeing a need to improve effectiveness of consumer remedies in cross-border disputes and provide clear information to consumers on judicial and extra-judicial dispute-resolution mechanisms.

-- Participating in international and regional consumer complaint, advice and referral networks.

-- Taking steps to minimize legal barriers to filing consumer complaints in cross-border disputes.

-- Establishing protections for payment cardholders in disputes with merchants.

-- Developing agreements between justice-systems, law enforcement and other government officials as to "the needs of foreign consumers who have been wronged by domestic wrongdoers."

"The recommendation contains a series of points that should be addressed," notes Peter Avery, principal administrator in the Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry at the OECD. "Some may already have been dealt with by some countries, other points might be dealt with quite quickly, while other points may take more time." In many cases, problems can be resolved directly by the parties concerned, without resort to dispute resolution, he said.

In approving the accord, the OECD countries agreed to seek ways to put the principles into action among themselves, as well as inviting nonmember counties to consider the dispute-resolution policy document.

The OECD's Committee on Consumer Policy is expected to monitor the progress to around the accord and report to the OECD's Council within five years.

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