CONSUMER RIGHTS IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Posted on December 13th, 2016

Sarath Wijesinghe Former Chairman Consumer Affairs Authority and former Ambassador to UAE and Israel

This is the theme of the World Consumer Day celebrating every 15th of March since 1983, when President John F Kennedy made the famous statement that Consumer by definition includes us all. They are the largest economic group affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decisions, yet they are the only important group whose views are often not heard.” But the situation has tremendously improved since then in USA and Europe and not in Sri Lanka which is far below the standards in terms of exercising of consumer rights by the citizen. World consumerism activism has proved that the consumer and economy will thrive only with a powerful and organized consumer movement in the country using pressure groups directing the State parties to provide the consumer the rights they are entitled to and deserve. Unfortunately the world trends has not influenced consumerism and the consumer in Sri Lanka despite fast growth of the digitalisation, internet, mobile and the social media is as helpless as ever.

Currently the consumer is expected to be protected by traditional legal and regularly procedures and consumer organizations now not functioning or inactive. Consumer and consumerism – that is consumer activism is a powerful force in the West directing the State, Trader, Industrialist, and the Regulators to protect the consumer and the other sectors to bring about equilibrium in the economy. Unprecedented developments on Technology has bypassed the ordinary regulatory process requiring complete overhaul the field of consumerism in a modern directions to meet the demands of the digital age. Currently consumer is neither protected nor looked after by the State and the organizations including NGOs and INGOs thriving on foreign funds.

Information Technology is an area that is drastically moving forward transforming the traditional way of   protecting the consumer through regulatory process in consumerism to digital area of the human race including consumerism, e-com, e-purchases as a result of fast changes of technology. Life style is fast changing with the increase use of mobile phones, computers, internet, and purchasing locally and via international platforms overlooking the protecting the consumer and the economy due to unprecedented fast movement of the digital age. While consumer computer penetration is high in the other parts of the world providing free facilities Sri Lanka is foolish in charging initially 25% nd about 50% from the mobile phones encouraging  citizen to travel instead of suing the net for day to day life.

While Tesco, Wall Mart, and similar food chains are thriving locally in Europe, International Giants such as E-bay are domination the e -sale business via internet and now through the social network spreading worldwide with no restrictions and regulatory procedure, Sri Lanka too has become a victim of e-purchase, Credit Card usage, local and international e-trade and living on debts with unlimited expenditure with extravagant lifestyle. While the corner shops in the United Kingdom – one time start up units on trade- are diminishing with the ferocious competition the supermarket Giants with their own products at the expense of the small time agriculturists, same situation has arisen in Sri Lanka with the emergence and popularity of the supermarket chains with their own brands and products and the banks lavishly offering credit facilities and credit cards. Europe and the West with wealthy economies and a powerful social security system can afford living on debts, credit cards and modern way patronising supermarkets and International platforms of mega Marts. Sri Lankans and the Banking system comfortably and successfully faced the economic and banking Tsunami”- as a result of cautious and traditional approach when west underwent destructions periodically due to the western way of livelihood gambling on shares and international trade.

Sri Lanka has 4788751 internet users with 22%of the total population of 2186645 million. Out of 250 million global Populations there are 250 million internet users. It took 75 years for the internet to reach the target or 50 million when Face book and social media took only one year to reach the same target shows how fast the digital age is passing by. World internet users are 3 billion today, when it was only 15%in 1995 penetrated by large percentages worldwide. Sri Lank has 23 million Mobile subscribers, and 3.5 million FB fans, stepping into the digital age adopting modern procedures for the day to day life. Social media is fast growing and active bypassing the traditional ways of communication, publications, and business capable of making drastic changes in the society with incidents spreading viral on the newfound media. What is the position of the consumer and consumerism in the present transitional period and what are the challenges ahead?

Today the main piece of legislation for the consumer in Sri Lank is the Consumer Affairs Authority the main Regulator with enormous powers, to regulate trade under part two of the act no 9 of 2003 with powers to give directions, maintain standards, prosecute errant traders. Initiate dialog and corporation between the trader and consumer and the state, power to organize seminars, consumers by setting of consumer organisations, sometimes assume judicial powers. How active the CAA is a matter for the consumer, business community and the state to decide based on the impact on living, trade, business and the consumer items the citizen is provided with including the service sector. Some other institutions in action on this area are Trade Marks Ordinance, Poison Opium and Dangerous drugs ordinance, Weights and measures ordinance, Food control act, Licencing of traders act, Code of intellectual act, Food Act, Cosmetic devices and drugs act Consumer credit act, Measurements unit, Unfair contract terms act, Local Authorities, Health Department, Public Health Inspectors, Bureau of Standards, Insurance and Finance Ombudsman, National Ombudsman, cooperative movement and the Ministry and the department consumer affairs not active and dormant as CAA the main Regulator.

With the battery of powerful institutions, the consumer is still as helpless as the group whose views are not heard and neglected as stated by President Kennedy. Whilst  fast approaching the digital age the traditional protectionism will become obsolete when citizen adopt new convenient and fast measures and methods on purchase of items and business. Neither CAA, nor the other institution  appear to have addressed the issue in protecting the consumer on new methods adopted in the absence of updated modern regulations with  power to protect by the consumer or the establishment.

It is difficult to swim against the tide on the inflow of technology with the fast growth of technology with globalisation and industrialisation with no boarders. The only remedy and the option available may be to adopt ourselves with cautious approach to protect the consumer trade, trader and the industrialist. There could be opportunities and challenges in the transitional process and it is the duty of those concerned and affected to work together for a line of action to avoid disasters in embracing new words on consumerism. Has innovations and research replace regulation are matters facing the researchers spending millions in this sphere

Data collection and data protection is a dangerous area the consumer is not aware of. In areas of insurance, banking, advertisements, and general e commerce the date is collected and shared with others for a consideration or other purposes until the consumer is faced with bill shocks and other complications on litigations and  various other demands. Are the information received trustworthy and whether the consumer has access to regulators or any institutional support. Digital products delivered in the process of downloading are not considered tangible goods and are in line with the consumers’ right to redress. so that the consumer is exposed to risks and products not suitable is delivered or not delivered at all. Free offers and other shady deals and rampant the legal process is expensive, complicated and evasive.

Are consumers protected and looked after by the regulators or organized network of consumer associations and action /active groups like in other parts of the globe. In Sri Lanka the dilemma faced by the citizen affected by the system and the trader openly exploiting and poisoning the public is the lack of implementation process of the regulatory powers and inactivity of consumer organizations and NGOs busy with more lucrative areas on human rights for foreign funds. Vegetables and fruits we eat are poisonous, water we drink are polluted and contaminated, Country is full of junk food chains and unhealthy cola drinks, Drugs are free and available to school children near schools, cooked food in outlets and unhealthy and mostly not suitable for human consumption, food and consumer items are of no proper slandered and out of reach of the consumer, Private hospitals are of no slandered and extremely expensive, CAA appear to be a  toothless lion, unconcerned or inactive and ineffective and inefficient to meet the expected standards. It has obviously not addressed the current and future demands at the door step of the digital age. At present the key authority  tasked with  safeguarding consumer rights is the CAA, however  given that digital consumerism also encroaches upon  the jurisdiction of  ICT and  ICT related laws it is important that the CAA work closely with ICT regulator, Telecom Regulator, Insurance and Financial Ombudsman, Chambers of commerce and the  Ministry of Consumer Affairs. Many people wanted   government to protect the consumer though more urgent problem is the protection of the consumer from the inefficient and weak government.- Milton Friedman.” – The author could be reached on [email protected] for further discussions.”

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