EU struggles with online consumer rights

Legislators face criticism from consumer groups for failing to take account of downloads

European legislators are struggling to create a law that will protect consumers when they buy online services or content.

The increasingly contentious Consumer Rights Directive will revise European customer protection legislation for national and cross-border contracts. But it has faced criticism from consumer groups for failing to take sufficient account of consumer rights for online digital purchases such as music, video, books and software.

"Online purchases of digital goods must be appropriately covered," said Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC). There are also fears that the proposed directive could in fact weaken protection in some countries, by undermining legal guarantees and protection against unfair contracts for downloads.

Preliminary agreement on the draft directive was reached last month between the European Commission and member states. However, members of the European Parliament are now examining the proposals and must give their approval before any law can be implemented.

"We want to take into account the new set of products that are often bought online, but we have not yet found the right solution," said Andreas Schwab, a German center-right MEP who is leading the European Parliament’s work on the topic. "The difficulty is that if you buy a digital product, for example, a film, you can either buy it as a DVD or you can download it. After buying a DVD, it’s very easy to check if you have used it because the seal hasn’t been broken, but if you download it, so far there is no technical system to check if you have viewed it."

One proposed option is a "button" that consumers would have to click on before they pay for an item. However, a survey last month by international legal practice Allen & Overy found that more than half of European online consumers do not read terms and conditions before clicking on such boxes.

Furthermore, 26 percent said that laws governing terms and conditions worry them when buying online. But 50 percent said the security of the website/payment was a worry and 34 percent cited the ease of returning goods as a priority.

Currently there is a standard 14-day "cooling off" period during which consumers can withdraw from a contract. The revised directive proposes a standard withdrawal form to make it easier for consumers to pull out of a contract. It also includes a ban on all pre-ticked boxes that apply to payments, such as for express delivery in distance selling or travel insurance, priority boarding and baggage when booking a flight. Consumers will have the right to be reimbursed the extra payments to which they have not actively agreed.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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