International Group Calls for Global Shopping Protections

According to the Consumer Policy Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, trans-border electronic commerce could become a wide-open market if consumers felt more comfortable about other nations’ online laws.

The committee, which is meeting in Paris this week, plans to iron out guidelines for its 111 member countries to follow when companies offer goods and services online.

Protections for consumers are “long overdue,” the group says, repeating the oft-stated concern that without consumer confidence, the full commercial potential of the Internet will never be realized. The policy committee consists of representatives of 29 OECD member governments, plus business, labor and consumer representatives.

They have been discussing their so-called “Guidelines for Consumer Protection in the Context of Electronic Commerce” for two years. They encompass issues such as jurisdiction, collection of personal information and redressing complaints.

Long Road to Rules

The committee hopes to finish compiling its recommended rules by the end of the year and then bring the measures to the full OECD for a vote. According to the policy committee, the rule-making process has dragged on primarily because the group has met with strong opposition from businesses that want fewer controls on Internet commerce.

The committee claims such companies prefer “vague general principles” to the “detailed, practical content” the group is considering. However, consumers, not businesses, are the entities the committee is most worried about protecting.

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

Melting Pot of Returns

According to one committee supporter, international returns on the Internet are highly unreliable. In a study funded by the European Union, consumer advocacy group Consumers International found that many items purchased and returned never arrive at the return destination, and refunds take unusually long to obtain.

In the study, consumer groups from Australia, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States ordered more than 150 items from 17 different countries and then returned most of them. One in 10 items never arrived, and two buyers from the United Kingdom and Hong Kong waited more than five months for refunds. About 44 percent of the products ordered arrived without receipts.

Many orders did not include critical information that consumers need for follow-up service. Nearly three quarters did not provide important contract terms, more than 25 percent gave no address or telephone number, and 24 percent were unclear about the total cost of the item that was ordered.

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