The Minister’s Address for the Annual Consumers Rights Day 2018

Annually, on March 15th, as the world continues in its hectic pace of utilising goods and services, World Consumer Rights Day is observed.   Consumers International (CI), a non-governmental organisation with the mandate to drive consumer protection, has declared this year’s theme to be “Making Digital Marketplaces Fairer”.  An obvious spinoff to last year’s theme – “Building a Digital Marketplace Consumers Can Trust”. The two themes are very topical, focusing on the issues associated with advancing electronic technologies and innovations.

Digital marketing is the marketing of goods and services as well as gathering of data based on these transactions.  It involves the use of various technologies inclusive of the internet, mobile phones, display advertising and all other digital media and is achieved via two modes, that is online and offline.

In 1971 Ray Tomlinson sent the first email and his technology allowed people to send and receive files through different machines. The term Digital Marketing was first conceptualized in the 1990s when the Archie search engine, a tool for indexing a standard network protocol to allow people to find specific files, was created.

Digital marketing became more refined in the 2000s and the decades following, when the increase of devices which were capable of accessing digital media led to sudden growth.  This led to changes in the way brands and businesses use technology for marketing.  As digital platforms are increasingly incorporated into marketing plans and everyday life, and as people use digital devices instead of visiting physical shops, digital marketing campaigns are becoming more prevalent and efficient.

Statistics produced in 2012 and 2013 showed that digital marketing was still growing. Digital marketing is always going to be a changing industry because the online world is changing rapidly. It’s not just a matter of sites coming and going. It’s also a change in the way people interact online, the software they use, the devices they use, and more.

  • Staying on top of all these changes is always going to be a challenge. Some of the main challenges ahead for digital marketing are as follows:
  • Blurred lines of accountabilities and liability;
  • Overall lack of transparency and clarity since it’s more difficult for consumers to have full clarity on how the product, service or device work;
  • In the principles of privacy and data protection, especially in determination of what consumer data can be used publicly or internally in developing targeted market strategies;
  • The supersession of consumer protection law by digital right managements; and
  • Increased security risk, as more information is shared online, there is more incentive for hackers to find ways to get through your security.
  • We shop online, pay bills, submit applications with private information, order copies of our birth certificates and other important documents, and much more. That’s a treasure trove of data for thieves.

These challenges are resolved by one of the pillars within consumer protection: the assurance of “Fairness” in all business transactions.  This assurance is for all consumers regardless of their creed, religion, race and social status and is of such high importance that the International Organization for Standards (ISO) developed the standard ISO 26000:2010 – Social Responsibility which provides guidance for business on their interactions with other entities; it focuses on human rights, environmental and ethical behaviour within commerce. The standard provides effective guidelines which produces effective actions.

The term “Fairness” (Fairer) has many definitions but the one definition of importance in the context of the 2018 theme pertains to morally right processes (actions) with the outcome of consequences that are honourable and equitable’.

In marketplaces, especially digital marketplaces, fairness or rather the absence of “unfair terms” matters to all consumers, in particular to those who are vulnerable or the disadvantaged. Intrinsically, terms found in contracts, user agreements and notices, whether written or verbally shall be fair, transparent, easily understood (plain) thereby maintaining and protecting the rights of both parties.  Of course, the relevant conditions will determine whether a term is deemed fair or unfair.

In Barbados, the government has long embraced its social responsibility and as such, has enacted following legislation to assist in making digital market places fairer:

  • Consumer Protection Act (CAP 326D);
  • Consumer Guarantees Act (CAP 326E);
  • Electronic Transactions Act (CAP 308B); and
  • Computer Misuse Act (CAP 124B)

All of these Acts are under the administration of entities namely, the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and the Fair Trading Commission both within the Ministry of Industry, International Business, Commerce and Business Development.

In conclusion we must remain cognisant of the fact that the claim of unfairness will not go away. However, with the enforcement of the aforementioned legislation and internationally recognized standards such as ISO 26000:2010, there is the assurance that consumers receive what they are due and deserving of in Digital Marketplaces.

Finally, in the words of Aristotle “All virtue is summed up in dealing justly”.

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