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Study shows need for cyber rules

A recent study titled Consumers@shopping, conducted by Consumers International, has indicated a real need for cyber rules when it comes to online shopping.

The practical study found that one in ten items never arrived, 44 per cent of products arrived without receipts, 73 per cent of traders failed to give crucial contract terms, more than 25 per cent gave no address or telephone number, 24 per cent were unclear about the total cost of items and refunds were difficult to obtain.

Consumers@shopping: An International comparative study of electronic commerce was conducted from late 1998 to early 1999, involved eleven countries and 151 ordered items from seventeen different countries. The websites used to place orders were easy to find and all were established traders.

The final report concluded that “regulators and retailers have much work still to do before the Internet can offer a reliable environment in which consumers can shop with confidence.”

A number of general and specific recommendations were made and will be discussed this month in Paris at a meeting of twenty-nine members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The meeting is being held at the urging of Consumers International,

It is hoped that the outcome of the meeting will be the setting in place of guidelines for consumer protection in the context of electronic commerce.

One of the recommendations outlined in the study was the need for national governments to adopt and support OECD best practice guidelines to enable international consumer protection.

Consumers International considers that, as adoption of the guidelines are voluntary, there should also be a recognised certification or labeling scheme that shows an agreed minimum standard on a wide range of internet shopping issues.

The most contentious issue of cross-border shopping centres around which law governs net transactions. Is it the law in the country of the consumer which is applicable or that in the country of the retailer?

It is suggested that e-tailers specify the terms and conditions of their transactions clearly, stating the laws which govern transactions on their site.

The report also addresses specific consumer concerns such as price information, returns, security, privacy, complaints, delivery and information about suppliers.

It even covers concerns over the use of cookies – bytes of information placed onto consumers’ computers by retailers to enable them to track pages visited and remember personal information. This allows companies to tailor their marketing to individuals.

“Sites should have a clear policy regarding their use of cookies which informs consumers that they can set their web browser to alert them that a cookie is being received,” says the report.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Internet, Australian purchases have grown 60 per cent in the last twelve months and it is estimated that as at May 1999 there are over three million people online in Australia. The number of Australian online consumers will only continue to grow if e-tailers are able to spruce up their electronic customer service.

Louise Sylvan, Vice-President of Consumers International and chief executive of the Australian Consumers’ Association said: “Electronic commerce will flourish only when consumers are reassured of real protection...Enough people are starting to use e-com that either its potential can really take off or it will start to produce horror stories and will falter from mistrust.”

l Raphe Patmore is CEO of Internet consultancy Biz E Planet.

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