Consumer empowerment through information

In the technologically complex and rapidly changing sector of telecommunications, consumers often suffer from an information asymmetry in relation to providers. This places the consumer in a vulnerable position in dealing with entities which sometimes engage in practices ranging from aggressive marketing to outright scam. Examples here are misleading pricing, non-transparent terms, and even non-consensual subscription to certain services.[1] This not only harms some consumers, but can also damage the market. Indeed, when consumers do not have sufficient information or are given inconsistent advertising, they may just refuse to participate in the market, discouraged by limited knowledge caused by lack of transparency or by information overload—which equally results in confusion.[2]

How, then, can reliable comparative indicators on quality and price ofservices empower consumers? More importantly, what information and mechanisms help to prevent abuses in the sector? There are different ways to empower consumers and thus overcome this information gap: first, improving the availability of comparative information on quality and prices; secondly, increasing the awareness of alternative suppliers and enabling consumers to switch providers easily and at an acceptable cost; finally, promoting education.[3]

Directive 2009/136/EC aims to address the first of these, promoting transparency and comparative information in the electronic communications sector. In particular, Article 21(1) provides that the national regulatory authorities can require providers to publish clear and up-to-date information on applicable prices and standard terms. In addition, according to Article 21(2) ‘national regulatory authorities shall encourage the provision of comparable information to enable end-users and consumers to make an independent evaluation of the cost of alternative usage patterns, for instance by means ofinteractive guides or similar techniques’. These norms place an evident focus on the comparability of conditions of access and use of services. This should empower consumers, making it simpler for them to make informed choices before purchasing products.

The directive also facilitates the change of providers. Article 30 states that Member States must ensure that all subscribers ‘who so request can retain their number(s) independently of the undertaking providing the service’, thus giving consumers the possibility to keep their telephone number (number portability). Moreover, it allows them to switch providers within a faster period than under previous regulations, thereby enhancing mobility across providers and increasing competition in the market.

Easier access to electronic communications services already represents an improvement in the information available to consumers. This is particularly true for the Internet, which opens up a wide range of product comparisons and new participation methods for consumers. Through it, consumers can exchange information about products or services, letting others know when a company is treating its customers badly or particularly well.[4]

Consumer education tools are also important to prevent abuse, and to limit the threats to privacy posed by new technologies.[5] In European countries there are not many initiatives in this sense, but it is conceivable that the experience of other countries might serve as an inspiration. For example in Canada, the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunication Commission uses some channels to educate consumers about their rights,[6] contributing to their empowerment.

Finally, besides the provisions included in the directive, the freedom to receive information was also recognized as a fundamental right. Included in Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the freedom to receive information may become particularly relevant for the consumer in the context of access to digital content. As we will see later in this chapter, both the fundamental freedom to receive and impart information, and the right to privacy protection have played an increasingly important role in recent case law.

  • [1] Telephone slamming is an illegal telecommunications practice of changing subscribers’ telephone service without their consent which has increased after liberalization; e.g., for the UKsee: .
  • [2] 34% of consumers have difficulties in comparing offers of different providers and do not takeadvantage ofbeneficial offers; OECD Report, Enhancing Competition in Telecommunications: Protectingand Empowering Consumers, Ministerial Background Report (n 47), p. 9.
  • [3] See the OECD Report, Enhancing Competition in Telecommunications: Protecting and Empowering Consumers, Ministerial Background Report (n 47), pp. 9 and 43.
  • [4] Digital technologies have empowered consumers to become active participants by evaluating products; see N. Helberger, ‘Making Place for the eConsumer in Consumer Law’, (2008) 31JConsumer Policy, pp. 385-91; T. Zarsky, ‘Law and Online Social Networks: Mapping the Challengesand Promises of User-generated Information Flows’, (2008) 18 Fordham Intellectual Property, Mediaand Entertainment L. J., pp. 741-83.
  • [5] Self-regulation measures to develop a consumer bill of rights or industry codes of practice thatgo beyond the regulatory framework can further improve consumer welfare.
  • [6] OECD Report, Enhancing Competition in Telecommunications: Protecting andConsumers, Ministerial Background Report (n 47), pp. 15-43.
 
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