On 1 and 2 April, alongside the seemingly endless series of summits – including the EU-Africa Summit – which have been continually haunting the daily commute of Brusselers, the city also hosted a rather less pompous summit. This year’s edition of the European Consumer Summit, the first (and maybe last?) to be hosted under the auspices of Commissioner Neven Mimica, gathered a wide range of stakeholders to discuss consumer issues in the digital era. The scope of the discussion was as broad as the theme of the summit. However, some overarching points worth of notice did emerge.
First, several participants stressed a rather ontological point: there is no need to discuss consumer issues in the digital era if consumers are not actually online. Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, and Malcolm Harbour, British MEP chairing the Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, to name a few, therefore stressed the complementary nature of consumer policy and the digital agenda. Accessibility and connectivity, in other words, are a key prerequisite to consumer problems, solutions and activity in the digital sphere.
The centre of the discussion was, clearly, how to ensure consumer rights and benefits in the digital sphere. The Commission often repeated its intention to unlock the potential benefits arising from the completion of the digital single market: €200 billion Europe-wide. However, it also stressed that the completion must be accompanied by measures ensuring that the benefits are shared by consumers as well. Reference was often made to the recently launched (the choice of the launch date was not random, evidently) EU Consumer Programme 2014-2020, and especially to the increased cooperation among consumer authorities and centres across the EU that the programme envisages.
Linked to the point above, the third key aspect that the summit dealt with is that of fairness and competition in the digital sphere. Fairness and competition were treated as complementary issues, as in order for consumers to build trust in the digital market, and therefore use its full potential and reap its full benefits, fair competition must be ensured. As an example, Monique Goyens, the Director General of the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) drew attention to the need of ensuring fairness of Google’s search optimization in order to foster consumer trust and protection (N.B: BEUC recently joined the Google antitrust case as a formal complainant).
A last point that was stressed, and not by surprise given the prominent role assigned by the summit organisers to Peter Hustinx, European Data Protection Supervisor, and Per Strömbäck, Editor of Netopia, was that of data protection. The summit stressed the need to consider consumer data protection as a key feature of consumer rights in the digital sphere. Again linked to the point above, tailored advertising by search engines and online retailers was one of the hot topics of discussion.
All in all, the summit highlighted some key points that will constitute the focus of consumer policy in the digital sphere in the upcoming years, and for the upcoming institutions post-#EP2014. Several of these issues are already being tackled individually through instruments such as the single telecoms market, redress, and the data protection legislation. However, the need for a more integrated approach emerged during the summit, to ensure that consumers can properly benefit from the digital market and, most of all, understand the challenges that it may bring to their rights. To conclude with the words of Strömbäck during the opening panel discussion of the summit, “remember that if it is free you are not a customer, but rather the product that is being sold”.