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Big challenges and the need for further actions on e-consumer protection

By: Daniela Salazar Díaz

The Deputy Superintendence for Consumer Protection of the Superintendence of Industry and Commerce (SIC) of Colombia has implemented strong measures in terms of consumer protection during the last six years, focusing its attention on misleading advertisement and deceptive information practices.  

However, globalization, cross-border transactions, information flows, smartphones, social networks and electronic commerce have aroused new challenges for regulation authorities on consumer protection by creating new protection agendas.

In this context, the Superintendence has conducted vigorous efforts in order to enhance its cooperation with international organizations and pair authorities by participating in multilateral scenarios, forums and committees to improve its own decisions and campaigns.

Accordingly, this year the Superintendence organized the First International Congress on E-commerce, which included the participation of Mexico’s, Peru’s, the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s authorities as well as a representative from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In this scenario, the international authorities exposed to peer platforms’ representatives and other attendees their main concerns on e-commerce and disclosed some of their consumer protection mechanisms.

Likewise, the Superintendence participated throughout the year in the activities proposed by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), particularly in the Meetings of the Working Group on E- Commerce and the Working Group on Consumer Product Safety. During these meetings, the Superintendence has repeatedly emphasized its progress on Consumer Education and its joint effort with the OECD in product safety global awareness campaigns.

The SIC has taken part in the Advisory Group of the International Consumer Protection Network (ICPEN) Presidency of Zambia and has led alongside Canada the Working Group on Consumer Education, which aimed to generate tools that create accurate consumer communication. It has also participated in the Zambian Presidency as a member of the Working Group on Marketing Practices Directed to Children in the Digital World, aiming to explore the impact of digital marketing for children.

In line with the above, the SIC presented its official postulation to the 2019-20 ICPEN Presidency, accepted by ICPEN members, with a government plan that foresees the following key aspects: consumer education, collaboration among authorities to strengthen consumer’s protection and a new perspective of enforcement through regulation and self-regulation.

Moreover, following the admission of Colombia as a fully-fledged Member State of the OECD, the Deputy Superintendent for Consumer Protection represented Colombia at the 96th Session of the Committee on Consumer Policy (CCP) and at the joint meeting of the CCP and the Competition Committee organized by the OECD in Paris. During these meetings, the Deputy Superintendent committed to contribute to the OECD work in consumer confidence in electronic media, collaborative economy platforms, trends in electronic commerce, and in the implementation of artificial intelligence.

As we have seen throughout this article, the Superintendence’s approach to consumer protection in the electronic media has been primarily preventive. This can be observed in the Superintendence’s emphasis on Consumer Education and in the joint campaigns alongside international authorities on this particular matter.

The Superintendence has also imposed sanctions against RAPPI, an on-demand and delivery platform, for infringements to electronic commerce rules by implementing deceptive advertisement practices on the terms and conditions of its offers. However, there is still a long way to go to guarantee consumers protection in the electronic media. 

Other authorities like the Federal Attorney’s Office of Consumer (PROFECO) or the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have explored other approaches to ensure e-consumers protection. For instance, the PROFECO has recently undertaken a proactive approach against infringing companies by opening investigations on peer platforms such as AIRBNB, BOOKING, and HOMEAWAY for alleged infringements against the Federal Consumer Protection Law. In this sense, the PROFECO initiated investigations for misleading claims on the terms and conditions of the service providers, deceptive advertisement, unfair terms, and incomplete information on the National Registry Systems.

On the other hand, the CMA has tried to go further by considering misleading actions and omissions in its legislation to punish peer platforms for the behavior of their associates (product sellers, hosts, service providers). According to this authority, peer platforms should take more responsibility to ensure that consumers get all the information they need to make an “informed decision” and they must take steps to collect information from sellers and to ensure its accuracy before they allow sellers to use their platform to sell a product or service.

In conclusion, the SIC has made intensive efforts to protect consumers in the electronic media, enhancing cooperation ties with international and pair authorities, working in consumer protection networks on consumer education and product safety, raising consumer awareness and undertaking enforcement action against infringing companies of e-commerce. Nonetheless, the Superintendence needs to consider the evolutionary nature of the electronic commerce and it should adopt a comprehensive approach to respond to the arising challenges of the communications’ revolution. Likewise, the self-regulation and the cooperation lines are fundamental action axes on e-consumer protection since they help to gather efforts worldwide in order to ensure the proper circulation of information about infringing companies, unsafe products, and risks to vulnerable population such as children and elderly adults.