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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Counter-Regulation And Consumer Empowerment

In 2006, I speculated in an article for the Society for Computers and Law, entitled "Counter-regulation", that the government would one day require offline businesses to implement the benefits of successful online business models. They would do this, I suggested, because successful online businesses "will have demonstrated to most consumers the inadequacies in the business models of their offline counterparts" whose customers will realise they're at a disadvantage compared to consumers dealing online.

That day certainly arrived in April, if not before, when the UK government announced its "Consumer Empowerment Strategy". The policy "aims to put consumers in charge so that they are better able to get the best deals for themselves, individually and collectively." As part of the strategy, "the Government wants to work with [service providers and retailers] to come up with a solution that allows consumers to access [purchasing] information, analyse it according to their own preferences and make better choices."

However, in Better Choices: Better Deals, the Government makes it refreshingly clear (at p.5) that a new legislative programme is not the best way to achieve consumer empowerment. Instead, it is relying on "a wide range of new programmes that have been developed in partnership with businesses, consumer groups and regulators" against a background of normal regulatory enforcement.

It is also refreshing to see that the Government has gone to considerable lengths to try to understand the overall context before announcing policy. As a result, Better Choices: Better Deals is a treasure trove of statistics, behavioural insights, and research - and an inspiring read, rather than an irritating one. There are numerous proposals (see pp.6-7 and Annex A of Better Choices: Better Deals), some of which are the product of thematic regulatory work and some of which go beyond the way many online businesses operate today. Indeed, the semantic web is central to the Government's vision. Of course, the list is not exhaustive - the document is step one in in an attempt to foster collaborative effort across the community, not a creaking regulatory panacea of the kind favoured by the European Commission. These proposals include:
  • the 'mydata' [since renamed 'midata'] project to enable consumers to access information about their purchases, analyse it according to their own preferences and use that information to make better purchasing decisions;
  • e-statements for credit cards, to provide the last 12 months of transaction data in a portable electronic format;
  • clear information about the lowest energy tariff on energy bills;
  • changes to Energy Performance Certificates and how they are presented;
  • improving the provision of product information about cars and other products from a health and environmental standpoint;
  • encouraging local collective purchasing deals;
  • making available more complaints and performance data about businesses, regulators, government departments and public service providers;
  • figuring out how in-store shoppers can access consumer feedback normally only available online;
  • a new resolution scheme for e-commerce disputes;
  • a review on how to empower very vulnerable consumers.
Of course, our day-to-day consumer activities tend to require combinations of data held by both public and private sector organisations. So it's encouraging that great progress is also being made on the Open Government data initiative.

Image from 1Million1Shot.

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