From robot lawyers to self-regulating IoT products, technology was a focal point at the G20 Consumer Policy conference, closely followed by sustainability and international cooperation.
In our latest blog, we highlight the top five issues we discussed at the G20 in Japan, where Consumers International joined representatives from 38 countries, alongside consumer experts such as UNCTAD, OECD, and the Consumer Affairs Agency of Japan.
1. POLICY CAN’T KEEP UP WITH RAPIDLY CHANGING TECHNOLOGIES
It took 50 years for the telephone to reach 50 million users. It took Facebook three years and augmented reality game Pokémon Go a staggering 19 days. Keeping up with technological innovation is a challenge for policymakers, who need to build frameworks that can accommodate change while remaining robust.
Our members have told us that technology is creating new challenges everywhere, with gaps in regulation emerging across a number of sectors. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest e-commerce market, there are growing concerns that legislation is failing to keep up with the ever-increasing volume of online transactions.
At the same time, innovation can help build more effective consumer protection tools. Russia is using big data to develop a ‘robot lawyer’ capable of understanding and answering consumers’ problems, as an innovative form of online dispute resolution.
With national legislation lagging behind, it is becoming increasingly urgent to set international common principles that can be adapted to national contexts.
2. HARNESSING TECHNOLOGY TO IMPROVE PRODUCT SAFETY
Currently, we do not have sufficient consumer protection at the national level – in a recent Consumers International survey, only 13% of respondents thought that their national product safety legislation operates successfully.
The low rate of consumer responses to recalls also remains a central issue: the first ever EU-wide consumer survey on recall effectiveness shows that a third of consumers continue to use products even after seeing a recall notice. Consumer advocacy and protection agencies need to come up with new ways of using technology to address product safety issues.
Internet of Things (IoT) technology offers exciting opportunities for more efficient and simplified product safety mechanisms. At the G20, Australia highlighted new IoT products that may be able to report flaws, schedule their own repairs and replacements, or deactivate if they are found to be dangerous – but greater manufacturer commitment to aftercare is essential to make the most of this potential.
3. MOVING BEYOND POLICY SILOS & STRENGTHENING CROSS-BORDER COOPERATION
Our members are seeing an increase in the number of cross-border issues including disputes, scams, product safety issues, and fake reviews. In parallel to this, there is a concern that cross-border work is often underfunded and de-prioritised. The lack of consistency in regulations across countries raises concerns about unscrupulous traders choosing locations with weak legislation or enforcement.
Despite a growing number of collaborative projects (such as ICPEN’s ‘econsumer.gov’ initiative, leading to collaboration on international scams between 36 countries), a significant lack of resources remains a key obstacle to global cooperation. At a time of rapid change, widening fault-lines, and lessening trust in a system that appears to favour the few, leaders need to talk about the digital economy and the future in a way that is connected to our everyday lives, across sectors, and not in silos.
4. AGE AND VULNERABLE CONSUMERS IN THE DIGITAL ERA
Opening the conference, and taking a place on the ‘Protecting Vulnerable Consumers in the Digital Age’ panel, Consumers International’s Director General, Helena Leurent, spoke about our members work and views and highlighted insights from our recent reports on Consumer Attitudes to AI, Trust by Design for IoT, and Social Media Scams.
As part of the panel, age emerged as an important issue in digitalisation – policymakers have a responsibility to make sure that elderly populations are not excluded from services and younger populations are protected from harm online. Educating young consumers on their rights and the importance of ethical consumption was a key priority for many participants, including Japan, South Korea, and Denmark.
To a large extent, technological innovations have improved the lives of consumers on a global scale. On the other hand, data security, privacy, and discrimination remain key concerns for vulnerable consumers. The UK highlighted that vulnerable populations are not only more susceptible to risks from new technologies but are more likely not to recover from any problems that do occur.
5. THE ROLE OF CONSUMPTION IN REACHING THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the role of consumption in tackling climate change was high on the conference agenda. Different policy approaches to changing consumer attitudes and behaviour were shared. The US noted the importance of consumer information, while Sweden emphasised the need to change social norms among different groups of consumers.
At the same time, responsibility does not lie with consumers alone – businesses need to take steps to ensure that products are built sustainably and built to last. The UK outlined the success of economic incentives, such as a plastic bag tax, while highlighting the importance of making sure that low-income consumers are not disproportionately affected.
On a global scale, our members have been actively engaging with the SDGs at various levels. Some members, including in Japan and Denmark, demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of how consumer issues interact with the SDGs and referenced national plans that include the consumer perspective. There are also important opportunities to work on product obsolescence by reviewing product warranties – our member Test-Achats are already responding to this issue by launching the ‘Trashed Too Fast’ tool, where consumers can register products that have broken down too soon. Collaboration between consumer advocates remains crucial, but other stakeholders including business also need to be included in the conversation.
We will continue to take these issues forward as the G20 presidency now moves to Saudi Arabia. So together we can find global solutions to global problems and continue to build a legacy of putting the consumer voice at the heart of the G20.