Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in EU Law at the Faculty of Law, Palacký University in Olomouc, hosted on 13th November 2020 an international “round table” dedicated to the issues of consumer protection in the digital era entitled “Digital future for European consumers. The event was part of the activities conducted under Jean Monnet Network “European Union and the Challenges of Modern Society (Legal Issues of Digitalization, Robotization, Cyber Security and Prevention of Hybrid Threats)”. Next to the 60 participants following round table online, there were six distinguished speakers from academia but also from Ministry of industry and trade or NGO sector dealing with consumer protection.
The event was opened by associate professor Naděžda Šiškova, head of Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in EU Law at the Faculty of Law, Palacký University in Olomouc, who is also Chair of the above mentioned Jean Monnet Network. Madam professor presented aims and activities of the workshop and spend many positive words about fruitful cooperation with partners. Among them are most prestigious universities in Europe, including University of Heidelberg (Germany), Tallinn University of Technology (Estonia), Comenius University in Bratislava (Slovakia), the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev (Ukraine) and Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in EU Law at Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic (Leading partner). She expressed her gratitude to host the workshop which was aimed at the exchange of experience among various actors in the consumer protection area – area which is very significant due to ongoing digitalization and the fact that we all are consumers. As simply said: on one side our age is bringing increasing requirements which are, unfortunately, not matching regulation which is absent or inadequate.
Participants were welcomed also by Blanka Vítová, well known researcher from the Faculty of Law, Palacký University in Olomouc, who is dealing with consumer protection in the Czech Republic. According to the associate professor Vítová the year 2020 is definitely “the Year of digitalization” with many challenges ahead especially in the areas of relations between consumer and producer, unregulated issues or misconduct of entrepreneurs. She put emphasis especially on data collection and violation of privacy with the use of new technologies when software simply collect data and send it to the producer or provider to upgrade products and target marketing. According to Vítová, regulation requires wide scale of measures both legal and social aimed at adaptation to the new World. The solution might be in clear, distinctive and transparent information provided to the customers. This may start with clear contracting conditions (phone, software), full respect of the consumer interests, mechanisms for setting up the responsibility or self-regulatory measures including ethical codes.
Another speaker of the round table was prof. Markéta Selucká, attorney and dean emeritus of the Faculty of Law, Masaryk University in Brno. Her valuable contribution was dedicated to the Czech “Lex voucher” and the attitude of Czech law-makers to the law of the EU. Prior Covid pandemic many consumers have concluded a distant contract with the providers or with the seller to buy a holiday. Due to Covid many holidays were cancelled and Czech Government contrary to the recommendation of the European Commission (based on the EU directive) to fully refund consumers or to provide them vouchers for the future holidays opted for just second option. Czech “Lex Voucher” thus violated EU directive and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. As a result travel agencies were in very favourable situation: they had money from the consumers for their own long term disposal without the duty to pay interest rates. There are two ways how consumers may defend: first possibility is to use the case-law appealing the euro-conform interpretation of directives, which was not applied in the Czech case. Second option is to use the Act on the responsibility for damage. However, according to Selucká Czech consumers are hesitant to defend their rights before with courts, mainly due to flaws in procedural laws. Inspiration might be found in Scandinavian countries in the institutions as Consumer‘s arbiter or mass lawsuits.
Very interesting contribution was delivered by Věra Knoblochová from the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade. Her contribution was about actual development in consumer protection, especially in relation to the “personalized prices” which are increasingly used in the on-line environment. Shopping on-line is in many aspects different than shopping in the “stone” stores where prices are displayed on stable marks. The situation with on-line shopping is different because sellers are collecting data about customers – visited sites, searched products etc. while trying to reflect socio-economic standard of the consumer and then they are adjusting prices based on collected data. Consumers who are perceived rich will pay higher price. On-line shopping has also other issues including “fake reviews”, paid personalized advertisements or proxies. Absence of information in the on-line environment has implications for consumer behaviour. As a result, EU is preparing new regulation aimed at consumer protection which will have implications for national controlling bodies which will have greater powers to publish warnings for consumers or even deny access to unlawful content.
Another speaker of the round table was Mária T. Patakyová from the Faculty of Law, Komenský university in Bratislava. She spoke about “Consumer Welfare Protection” aimed at protecting consumer from jumping prices but also about welfare in a broader sense. Dr. Patakyová introduced Competition policy for the digital era (2019) and analysed several important issues related to global networks, especially in the areas of dominant position misuse which was presented on the case of Facebook in Germany. Despite this issue is not solved yet, it discovered undesired practices – especially collecting data of a third parties and possibilities of ex ante regulation.
Last two contributions were delivered by Svatava Veverková (Faculty of Law, Masaryk University in Brno) and Marcel Ivánek (dTest). Svatava Veverková informed participants about unfair practices used by contracting agents who search customers to conclude a contracts on energetic auctions. Agent on behalf of the customer will enter energy auction which in some state will get wrong for customer, because finally auctioned price is higher than average and consumer has no right to cancel agreement. Agents are usually targeting older people, using psychological pressure, providing misleading information, violating home-to-home anti-sellers law or are concluding unlawful agreements in the area which is not well regulated. As of 2019 there were 219 cases solved, especially with the agreement of both parties. Above mentioned method is clear violation of the consumers law stating that 1) consumer shall be not punish for cancelation of agreement, 2) has 14 days to cancel agreement, and 3) when doubts occur, the law shall be interpreted in favour of a weaker side (consumer).
Marcel Ivánek from dTest (Czech consumer protection organization) presented challenging trends in the e-commerce. As mentioned, there are approx. 50 thousand e-shops in the Czech Republic with varying quality of consumer protection policies. Mr. Ivánek explained the misuse of “cookies” which are collecting data about the behaviour of users and which might be provided to the third parties. He also explained challenges brought by internet when for example a concert tickets in large numbers might be sold in just few hours to hundreds of parties operating in many countries with various degrees of regulation. Finally, he pointed out to the challenges brought by Corona virus: that intervention of state is aimed at the support of e-shops and consumer protection on internet is second order issue.