Friday, 26 June 2015

CI priority focus on trade: Towards a positive consumer agenda on world trade

Consumers International (CI) is currently developing important work on international trade as a key part of our priority programmes. CI’s activities will aim to ensure that consumers are at the heart of trade negotiations and agreements around the globe. 

Our Director General Amanda Long outlines how we can push forward a positive consumer rights agenda for trade, and ensure the voice of consumers is heard and acted upon in trade discussions between different countries, regions and under the umbrella of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). 

We – the consumers – are the people that make trade work. We are the largest constituency in the economy and should be one of the main beneficiaries of trade, yet business, governments and international organisations do not always get to hear the voice of consumers. 

It’s time we changed this. In an increasingly globalised and digitalised world, there is real potential for consumers to benefit more through trade.

As the international federation of consumer organisations, CI can play a crucial role in developing a positive consumer agenda on trade. Together with our Member organisations and other stakeholders, we are developing an ambitious agenda that both responds to current issues and clearly outlines a vision for how trade can work for consumers. 

CI is in active dialogue with the WTO and other key global organisations to substantially further develop our trade programme.  This includes exploring multi-national campaigning and influencing on trade and trade issues with our Members, as well as continuing our work to influence current trade negotiations and agreements such as TPP, TTIP (through our co-ordination and support for the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue), and developing our focus on future agreements and negotiations.


Can you hear us now? Making the consumer voice heard in global trade discussions.

Consumer representatives need to assert their right to be at the table and have the skills and evidence to be heard in the trade debate. With the proliferation of regional and bilateral free trade agreements, currently negotiated deals are more secretive than those that have taken place under the WTO umbrella. 

We want to develop effective strategies to ensure increased transparency and accountability. We also want to influence current trade negotiations and set the agenda for future trade talks. 

Moreover, consumer representatives need to move with the times. Trade negotiations increasingly address new areas of policy making that have a profound effect on consumers. These days, trade negotiations are less about cutting tariffs, and more about behind the border issues such as national regulations and standards. 

So we need to adapt our agenda and take a look at how trade negotiations impact such areas of genuine consumer interest like food safety, data flows, and financial services. 

The nature of trade is also changing as a result of technology and trade processes are affected too due to digital technology. This development has real potential. It could perhaps be the most democratic form of trade, with consumers themselves driving business. But it also comes with its own set of challenges that we need to address.


Towards a positive consumer agenda on trade

Looking at trade from the consumer perspective is, however, more than just about choice and value.

Consumers have legitimate interests and concerns that are as central to consumption as product variety and prices. Here we need to think about consumer safety, information and redress.  And this all comes down to trust – consumers want to be able to trust the products and services they buy and the companies that provide them. For example:

·                     They want to trust that the toys their children play with are safe.
·                     They want to trust the nutrition and health claims made on food packages.
·                     And they want to trust that they can seek adequate redress when their rights are violated.

That’s why we need to understand the role of trust in building a solid and respected trading system and find ways to promote trade whilst respecting consumers’ concerns.

Put consumers’ concerns and needs at the heart of the international trade agenda and reap the benefits of trust and engagement. Consumers are key to making trade happen, so start with the end in mind – trust and engagement.   

Just to get started, how would trade negotiations and agreements look like if they focused on the needs and concerns of consumers?

1.       Listen to consumers
      The consumer voice and consumer representatives need to be recognised as key relevant parties in trade negotiations and be given an opportunity to provide input and comment. This is especially important in the context of negotiations that are increasingly about regulations, and thus have important implications for consumer safety and protection. 

2.      Respect consumer concerns.
It is essential for trade negotiators to recognise that consumers have vital concerns in relation to safety, public health and the environment that were often hard fought and won. By respecting their concerns, vital consumer trust can be built.

3.       Tackle corruption and lack of competition.
The focus should be on providing a competitive marketplace where the reduction of costs for companies will be transferred to consumers in terms of prices and choice.

4.       Focus on how consumers are using digital technology.
A positive agenda for delivering consumer benefits would address newly emerging issues of buying online across borders. This means addressing gaps in the current IP rules. Improving warranties and online dispute resolution will also have to be central elements. 


Putting consumers at the heart of trade

Consumers matter in trade. Without consumers there wouldn't be much trade. 

However, in the current world of trade negotiations, the voice of the consumer is rarely heard. This needs to change. 

If the consumer voice had a place at the table to provide input and comment into the development of trade agreements, we could create better trade deals that meet consumers’ needs and concerns.  Bringing both economic and social benefits, strong and effective consumer protection can play an important role in positively underpinning economies around the world and the global trading system.

The development of CI’s focus on international trade as a key part of our priority programmes will help push forward a positive consumer rights agenda for trade and ensure that the consumer voice is at the heart of trade discussions around the globe. 

Friday, 5 June 2015

Towards a Magna Carta for the Internet

Speaking at the Web We Want Festival at the Southbank Centre, London, CI’s Director General Amanda Long explains why a ‘Magna Carta’ for the web could be the vehicle to delivering established consumer rights for everyday digital consumers.  

The concept for developing a Magna Carta for the web is an initiative being taken by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web Foundation.


The web has transformed consumer experiences, with the Internet fundamentally changing for the better how people interact and transact with markets. 

We can now engage at a time of our choosing, draw on a massive volume and range of information, select from unprecedented choice; all with access to global markets on hand held devices. 

The Internet also transforms notions of what it actually is to be a consumer – we’re pro-consumers and collaborators on the web. Creating, curating and sharing content including rating and reviewing our experiences.

Because the web grants access to a media for the masses, where information flows bottom up, at scale, for the first time in history, dynamic new forms of consumer empowerment emerge. 

However, whilst the web makes collaboration easy - from forming groups to aggregating demands to achieve a shared goal - these many benefits come with major challenges. 

Technology outpacing consumer protection

Back in 1962, in a landmark address to Congress on Consumer Protection, President Kennedy observed that: “The march of technology….has increased the difficulties of the consumer along with the opportunities; and it has outmoded many of the old laws and regulations and made new legislation necessary.”

For our Members, that observation has worrying relevance today. In our recent Consumer Protection Survey their responses contained a clear message that: The rapid evolution of the digital economy is outmoding and outpacing consumer protection. 76% felt enforcement of consume protection was ineffective in the digital economy – worse than any other sector.

Access is a significant consumer challenge; the majority of consumers are yet to use the internet, let alone see the benefits. There is also the issue of having reliable, good connection alongside, affordability, quality of customer service from the providers and unfair and overlong contracts. User license agreements are often too long, too complex and too inflexible, making consent look like submission.

In some cases consumers are being exploited for their data by companies using it to enable discriminatory, personalised pricing. The question of ‘who owns our data?’ is an increasingly important current issue.

Why we need a Magna Carta for the web


We really are at a vital stage in the evolution of the web, in the digital century it is an essential service. Considering the challenges that consumers face we need to establish users’ rights and ensure they are respected. A ‘Magna Carta’ for the web has the potential to be:
  • global in its application and reach;
  • not subject to the vagaries of implementation that afflict institutional responses;
  • draw directly on the voice, aspirations and priorities of web users in its drafting and reflect them in its final form;
  • an effective tool of self-regulation if companies voluntarily commit to its principles;
  • the stimulus, building political will to develop relevant legislation, and for policy-making in nations.
The web we want

This Magna Carta initiative represents an ideal opportunity to articulate a vision of the web where:
  • Innovation can still move fast, without playing fast and loose with established rights;
  • Commercial success online is based not on a business model that exploits users, but on ensuring users are better able to exploit all the potential of all of the web.
The ‘Magna Carta’ could be the vehicle to deliver this and consumer rights have the potential to be one of the key agents for change globally. 

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was a landmark event for public health – can the same model be applied to diets?

As the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) celebrates its tenth anniversary on 27 February 2015, Consumer International's Head of Advocacy Justin Macmullan makes the case for coordinated global action on diet-related diseases. 

Consumers International (CI) is very proud of the role we played in supporting the passage of the FCTC, and the work that many CI Members continue to do to support its implementation in their own countries.

Tobacco still kills 6 million people a year so there is still a lot more to be done, particularly in low and middle income countries where 80% of the world’s one billion smokers are living. 

However the FCTC marked a significant moment in the struggle to fight this epidemic and a huge amount has been achieved in the last ten years. In many countries smoking is now discouraged by banning marketing, banning smoking in public places and pushing up the price through taxation. 

It shows what can be achieved when governments come together to support a public health goal.

Given what the FCTC has achieved, including establishing an agreed framework of policies, a monitoring system and an international agreement that strengthens the hand of governments in the face of often fierce opposition, CI believes it is time to ask if the same model can be applied to tackle the global public health crisis caused by diet-related diseases. 

Diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers now account for more than 11 million deaths a year, more than the number of deaths connected to smoking. There is also a huge financial cost, obesity alone is estimated to cost the economy $2 trillion dollars. This is a genuine global issue with some of the fastest rates of increase in low and middle income countries. 

Many countries have introduced policies to try to improve diets but not one country has yet introduced measures to achieve a significant reduction in the level of obesity.

Despite this worrying trend, there is actually widespread consensus about the comprehensive package of policies that is needed to tackle the problem. What is needed now is political will and leadership.

To mark World Consumer Rights Day this year, CI is calling for a new Global Convention to Protect and Promote Healthy Diets. The agreement would use the same mechanism as the FCTC and would give governments the support they need to tackle this global health emergency.

A Global Convention could provide a framework that governments could follow including policies such as:
  • Reducing very high levels of fat, sugar and salt in everyday foods
  • Banning junk food marketing to kids
  • Providing clearer information to help consumers choose healthy diets
  • Ensuring trade and investment agreements support, not hinder, healthy diets
If you support our call for a new global convention to support healthy diets please join our Thunderclap campaign. 

Supporting the campaign is quick and easy, just visit our Thunderclap page and click on the big red buttons to ‘Add your support’ via Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Thunderclap will then send the following message to all your friends and followers on 15 March 2015:

 “I want a world where consumers have the right to healthy food #WHO must take action #FoodTreatyNow http://thndr.it/14WblZb”

Please also share this link https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/22307-food-treaty-now  with your friends, colleagues and supporters so that we can grow support for a global treaty to promote healthier diets!

As with the FCTC, a Global Convention for healthy diets would have to be agreed through the World Health Organisation and that requires support from governments around the world. That is why CI is calling for people everywhere to make their voices heard in support of action to promote and protect healthy diets.

Monday, 19 January 2015

How consumer protection can help deliver the UN’s new vision of shared prosperity

The world will be missing a big opportunity if we don’t make greater links between consumer protection and sustainable development, explains CI Director General Amanda Long. 

This week, UN member states are coming together in New York to begin to define a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These will replace the UN’s influential Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and will be launched in September 2015.

September will also see the final revision of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP), to make them more relevant to consumers in today’s global marketplace.

Consumers International believes a big opportunity will be missed, if we don’t make greater connections between consumer protection and sustainable development.

Despite consumers being at the heart of many of the issues dealt with in the SDGs, there is little or no mention of consumer protection. 

Consumer protection and empowerment should be recognised as central to sustainable development. It ensures that people everywhere are treated fairly and with dignity in the marketplace, and have access to safe and healthy products, and services. This is particularly important for poor and vulnerable people who are often amongst the most exploited.

Consumer protection and empowerment provides a clear means to curb inequalities and to promote fairness, justice and prosperity in an increasingly complex global economy.

To give just three examples of why consumer protection is important to the SDGs:
  • Proposed Goal 2 aims to ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition'. To achieve this, consumers need access to nutritious and affordable food which follows food safety standards.

  • Proposed Goal 3 aims to ‘Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages'. This means that consumers need access to healthcare but also protection against unsafe products and services that cause ill health, injury or death.

  • Proposed Goal 8 calls for ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth'. It is hard to see how this can be achieved unless consumers are represented and empowered to play their part in the economy. 

Similar points can be made in relation to almost every one of the proposed Goals.

The most effective way to make the link between consumer protection and the SDGs, is to make 
implementation of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection one of the targets in the SDGs.

This will provide real practical support for consumer protection:
  • It will raise the profile of consumer protection with international and national organisations and agencies who have not previously seen it as part of their agenda.
  • It will require the international community to measure and report on the implementation of the UN Guidelines on a regular basis.

This is why CI is calling for the UNGCP to be included under the proposed Goal on the ‘means of implementation and global partnership’, with the following truly cross-cutting target:

  • By 2030 ensure all countries have implemented the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection. 

People’s ability to consume, the consumption choices available to them and whether they are treated fairly as consumers, fundamentally affects the quality of their lives and of the environment around them.

Clearly then, the SDGs’ objectives to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and promote shared prosperity, fundamentally rely on how consumers think and act, and how their opportunities and choices are protected – in the developed and developing world.

CI is looking forward to further engagement on a more inclusive and consumer-focused development agenda throughout this vital year – to help make shared prosperity a reality. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Tick, click and hope for best no longer cuts it for consumers who want tech on their terms.


The next big step for consumers in the digital age could well be one that puts consent to share data on the terms of the individual, not the service provider. CI Director General, Amanda Long, explains.

The storm over Uber’s consumer privacy settings is just the latest in a growing list of concerns about the tech industry’s handling of our data. From general irritation about targeted ads; to deep unease about our personal data security, to fears over the erosion of civil liberties – there is concern about who has access to data about us and what they are doing with it.

In the US 86% of consumers have tried to use the internet in ways that minimise the visibility of their digital footprints. Across Europe, 55% of consumers fear becoming a victim of fraud when disclosing personal data in online transactions, while 68% of UK consumers find the way that brands use the information they hold on them creepy.
This unease is exacerbated by the lack of transparency over who is obtaining our data, who they are sharing it with, how they are using it, and to what ends.

Take Axciom, one of the world’s largest data brokers. Unbeknown to almost everybody, it is reported to hold 1,500 pieces of information on more than 500 million people around the world, giving it the ability to predict 3,000 possible reactions to brands and marketing techniques. 

Such data brokerage firms – part of a multi-billion dollar industry that has emerged to meet growing demand – are harvesting data about us from multiple sources online (and offline) and combining it into rich, if incomplete and context-less, profiles of individuals, segmented to meet the needs of their clients.

The collection of such data is being used to sell us stuff in more and more extraordinary ways.  

Personalisation

In 2012, for instance, US retail giant Target sought to outdo its competitors in reaching the lucrative ‘new parent’ demographic by developing an algorithm that used purchasing history data to predict which of its female customers were pregnant. It would then send tailored discount vouchers for maternity and baby items to women it predicted were in their second trimester. The results are now data segmentation folklore.

Authorities in London last year had to stop a company’s roll out of ‘smart’ litter bins that were connecting with pedestrian’s phones and serving up targeted ads based on places the passer-by had previously visited.

UK retail giant Tesco is installing facial recognition technology that will see screens target ads at customers based on age and gender. 

Marketing innovators such as Ditto are using digital photo recognition software to trawl social media and analyse how brands are being contextualised in images people share online.

Just a taste of how the arms race to create personalised marketing campaigns is well underway; a race only likely to pick up as we take the next digital leap into the internet of things.

The submission

It is well established that terms of use, End User Licence Agreements and privacy policies – the mechanisms by which we ‘consent’ to the harvesting of our data -  are too long, too complex and too inflexible. Ironically, in light of the targeted advertising they fuel, they are distinctly impersonal.  Analysis undertaken in 2008 calculated that it would take 76 working days to read every privacy policy an internet user encounters in the course of a year.

No surprise then that research shows the median time users spend on license agreements was only six seconds; that 70% of users spend less than 12 seconds on the license page; and that no more than 8% of users read the License Agreement in full. 

Yet despite the growing unease and risk, most individuals still tick the ‘I agree’ box and ‘consent’ to giving this data. But is it given either knowingly or willingly? I think we can safely say the answer is no.

Faced with a binary ‘take it or leave it’ choice and with no opportunity to set their own preferences, current T&Cs can make consumer consent look more like consumer submission. We are left having to tick, click and hope for the best.  

This has led the World Economic Forum to caution of a developing ‘crisis of trust’, stemming from the use of personal data in ways that are inconsistent with individuals’ preferences or expectations.

Finding a more meaningful solution to this problem requires mechanisms that enable the consumer to express their terms in a simple and accessible way; not a one sided, one-size-fits-all model of consent.

Encouragingly, there are growing indications that change may be on the horizon.

The blowback


Earlier this year the US Federal Trade Commission’s own look at the data broker industry found that “data brokers operate with a fundamental lack of transparency”;

GlobalWebIndex research found that more than a quarter of the world’s online population are using tools to disguise their identity or location.

In March the father of the web, Tim Berners Lee called for an online Magna Carta - a bill of rights that would guarantee the independence of the internet and ensure people’s privacy.

And even the tech giants have begun to make a virtue of privacy. For example, Microsoft’s global ad campaign asserting ‘Your Privacy is Our Concern’. Or Apple’s CEO feeling obliged to publish an open letter to its customers stating that your trust means everything to us, and outlining its ‘strict’ data handling policies (just as Apple gears up for a big push on health and financial services – two of the most sensitive forms of consumer data).

Analysts are predicting that privacy is set to become a competitive differentiator, and the driving force for the next ‘killer app’; and the pressure for something different, for something better is now building to the point where change looks inevitable.  

A new breed of tech companies are already taking the lead on developing tools that enable consumers to start taking back control.

For example, 40 million people are using Ghostery - a browser extension that enables users to see and block companies that track you when you visit a website. Personal data vault services are emerging that allow consumers to securely gather, store, control and release their data on their own terms. The development of ‘sticky’ data policies, bind a consumer’s permissions to their data “as it travels across multiple parties, enabling users to improve control over their personal information”.

Of course, to enable effective permission-setting consumers need to understand the permissions they are granting. This too is prompting new initiatives in how to present potentially complex contracts and preferences in a ‘human readable’, engaging form.

A job for consumer groups

CI and its Members have key roles to play in helping bring about these changes too.

We must advocate to ensure the right underlying principles are enshrined in legislation. It is why CI is calling for the revised UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection to adopt an objective to safeguard consumers against the unauthorised collection, use, disclosure or loss of their personal information. 

CI has also recently launched a privacy and data protection initiative with the governments of Germany, Brazil and China – a high-level dialogue that concerns the data of more than a third of the internet users worldwide.

We must support the development of the new tools and services that can empower consumers in relation to their data, and, where appropriate help bring them to the mainstream. We must bring the consumer group testing expertise to the digital age, helping consumers identify the superior services that can best serve their needs.

And across all of this, consumer groups have a key role to play in contributing to an infrastructure that can give consumers the confidence they need to take control of their data and take a stake in the value that it will increasingly deliver in the digital economy.

The pressure is mounting for a better deal on data and privacy for consumers. It’s coming from a range of actors: governments and regulators, tech titans, internet visionaries, consumer bodies and, crucially, it’s coming more and more from consumers themselves.  

Some entrenched parties will try to resist it, but those genuinely working in the consumer interest must embrace this eagerness for change.  So let’s move towards a digital future set on terms that put the consumer first.

This blog is an extended version of a piece first featured in the Huffington Post on 26 November 2014.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Amanda Long: how our G20 campaign is improving financial consumer protection



This weekend marks a significant moment in Consumers International’s advocacy and campaigning on financial consumer protection. CI Director General, Amanda Long, explains.

The financial crash in 2008 highlighted the appalling way that consumers of financial services were being treated by the banks, not just in the major economies but around the world. 

Unfair contracts, hidden fees and charges, putting profit before basic consumer protections. For developing countries this was a serious concern as tens of millions of consumers were joining the market for financial services for the first time. CI members had been reporting this for years, but it was the financial crash that made it global headline news. 

However, when the crash came it was the stability of the banks that received the attention of world leaders. It was not until CI and our members launched our campaign in 2010 that consumer issues were addressed.

Jump forward to November 2014, and the report on the latest international developments in financial consumer protection that G20 Finance Ministers and leaders will receive this weekend. It marks a major change in international efforts to support a better deal for consumers. 

There are now a set of High Level Principles on Financial Consumer protection and a full set of ‘effective approaches’ to support their implementation. A first peer review of implementation is also in progress. FinCoNet (the international network for financial supervisors) is now a formal organization with staff, members and a work plan, and the Financial Stability Board has acknowledged the link between consumer protection and stability of the sector

We have travelled a long road to get here.

When CI launched our campaign in 2010 we made a global call for G20 leaders to take action  to strengthen financial consumer protection. Specifically we called for minimum standards relating to:

  • Fair contract terms and charges for financial products and services.
  • Information design and disclosure on financial products.
  • The governance and functions of national financial consumer protection bodies.
In addition we called on the G20 to make recommendations for:

  • The promotion of effective competition in markets for financial consumer services.
  • The development of a permanent organisation for international standard-setting and coordination with regard to financial consumer protection. 
Four years later significant progress has been made, quite an achievement at the international level. 

The G20 and OECD have agreed the ten High Level Principles and a set of effective approaches to support their implementation. And we will shortly see how that work translates into action for consumers as the first voluntary peer review is underway, with the Central Bank of Ireland becoming the first financial conduct authority to be reviewed. The Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets (AFM) is undertaking that assessment.

And in relation to another of CI’s demands, FinCoNet, the international network for financial consumer protection, is now a formal organisation with a strong membership and a good work plan including areas that CI has championed, including responsible lending and mobile payments. 

Inclusive engagement by FinCoNet means that CI is an official observer to the network we are have been able to push for greater consumer protections by demonstrating consumer detriment in irresponsible lending and sales incentives.

Of course CI still wants to see much more effective consumer protection nationally and providers changing their policies and practices so the market offers products and services that are safe, fair and appropriate for consumers needs. This is a big challenge but one that consumer organizations are committed to delivering.

Whilst there is still much more to be done (and we may never be able to say that this work is complete) it is important to recognise that none of the international architecture was in place when CI launched its campaign in 2010.