by Ursula Pachl*
From scam ads on Google and Facebook, the purchase of fake reviews on various platforms to chemicals surpassing legal limits in children’s toys sold on Wish, Amazon and eBay – the internet is rife with products, services and content which should never be offered in Europe, writes Ursula Pachl.
In fact, in February of this year, six BEUC consumer organisations released test results about electrical goods, toys, cosmetics and other products bought from online marketplaces such as Amazon, AliExpress, eBay and Wish. They found that two-thirds of the 250 products failed safety tests.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on another dark side of online platforms – something consumer organisations have been raising for years: the huge number of online scams, fraudulent ads, and the sale of unsafe products online. Throughout Europe, BEUC member groups have acted to uncover online sales of fake face masks and disinfectants, price gouging of hygiene products on Amazon and eBay and miracle cure advertisements on Facebook or Google. It is outrageous to take advantage of people during a (health) crisis. And some of these practices have been happening under the platforms’ watch.
With the upcoming Digital Services Act poised to be published tomorrow (15 December), there is a chance to weed out these damaging practices and make online marketplaces liable when things go wrong. What needs to be done?
First, let’s fix the disparity between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ consumer protection. Amazon, Wish and eBay claim that they are merely intermediaries between the seller and the consumer and thus must continue to be exempted from liability if anything goes wrong. Well, the share price and annual turnover of these e-commerce platforms leaves no doubt that being an intermediary is a very profitable business and that they play a fundamental role in the supply chain. This must come with accountability.
Marketplaces should be directly liable to consumers when they exert a decisive influence on the traders who sell on their platform or when they do not act promptly and adequately to remedy wrongdoings. In the end we want consumers to be able to shop safely, be it from a toy store in Dusseldorf, a shoe shop in Sevilla, from Amazon directly or from the traders that the platform hosts.
A second necessary change to make online platforms responsible for what they offer or facilitate selling is a “know your business user” principle. Our UK member Which? revealed how a lack of effective controls on Facebook and Google could allow fraudsters to create and post fake adverts to target victims and spread misleading information within a matter of hours.
Platforms should have a duty to verify whether the trader that is selling, advertising or offering goods on their website is legitimate, instead of – as a Wall Street Journal investigation showed – even encouraging sellers into their platform that put consumers at risk.
A third point of action to make sure consumers aren’t ripped off or sold harmful products is an obligation for platforms to conduct random checks on the services and products they offer – just as consumer organisations do. Even if a seller acts legitimately, there is a risk that they offer illegal goods or services. Over the years, our member organisations have conducted dozens of tests and extensive research – with mostly damning results, unfortunately.
E-commerce shops should not wait for someone else to tell them if something sold on their platform is illegal. Unacceptably though, our experience shows that even if they are told, they do not always make sure listings are removed. Online marketplaces should for example check public authorities’ product safety warnings and notify authorities when they become aware of illegal activities on their platforms. In fact, some platforms already now claim that they conduct these checks voluntarily. This should become an obligation for all online marketplaces.
It’s high time the online world stops acting like the Wild West. The European Commission is expected to present its Digital Services Act proposal before the end of the year. We expect no less than what the Commission’s President, Ursula von der Leyen, promised when she outlined her political priorities and what the European Parliament is now also asking for: an updated set of rules to upgrade our liability and safety rules for digital platforms, services and products, and complete our Digital Single Market.
*Deputy Director-General of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation
**first published in: www.euractiv.com