E-commerce: The Questions that Matter

August 16, 2010

If on visiting a friend your host’s first question is ‘would you like tea of coffee?’ then it seems safe to assume that ‘I want a pint of tequila and three cocktail cherries’ is not an acceptable answer. A plain ‘would you like a drink?’ opens up so many more possibilities – a simple call to borrow a screwdriver may end with ringing for a taxi after sex on the beach, or may just lead to cocktails. Throughout life, the question pretty much determines the parameters of the answer. But even where the question genuinely merely seeks information, it tells you something about the questioner’s frame of mind. So it is with the latest consultation by the EU Commission on the future of e-commerce and the implementation of the e-commerce Directive. And the questions need to be read carefully if you are to gain an insight into current EU thinking.

I am not sure what the EU Commission has been doing since the completion of the last study into e-commerce that it references (April 2008 – a very long time in e-commerce terms), but the delay seems to have allowed disappointment to grow and fester. The thinking seems to be along the following lines: ‘Here we are the creators of an internal market that aims to batter down the boundaries that restrict cross-border trade and our latest child, EU e-commerce, is not achieving as much as we’d like. Others may think he’s doing fine, but we expected Oxford, a knighthood, a Wimbledon win and the Nobel Peace Prize by now. It is time to take matters in hand.’

I was not surprised by the tone of disappointment with the level of penetration of e-commerce that is acknowledged in the introduction to the questionnaire. There have been various speeches and statements by Commissioners that betray an impatience with developments. But I am not convinced that the disappointment is justified. I think the volume of e-commerce is high and growing. Furthermore, my personal impression is that the Internet and the e-commerce possibilities that go with it are very widely acknowledged but that people also have begun to realise the limitations that accompany them; they see e-commerce as having a place in their lives but don’t see it as a good thing for it to dominate their buying experience. Finally, while I applaud attempts to improve the e-commerce experience, I cannot for the life of me see how {i}more{/i} e-commerce is necessarily good for the EU or its citizens, especially specialist retailers.

But, despite the cavils about the aims, I am impressed by the Commission’s questionnaire. I have some minor gripes. Let me give one example – the EU seems to have overlooked the very basic fact that {i}for the consumer{/i} e-commerce is never going to be an EU-only phenomenon. So, when the EU reflects a widely held consumer view that ‘the Internet can entail risks and may even, in some contexts, resemble a place beyond the law’ it is solely focused on the issue of on-line dispute resolution mechanisms in the EU and does not seem to acknowledge that, whatever it achieves, the resolution of a consumer’s dispute with a seller based in China is not going to be easier. The consumer is not going to readily distinguish between the foreign seller in Poland and the seller in China and feel at ease with the former because of the EU on-line dispute resolution requirements. Maybe the distinction should make a difference, but it won’t.

But my main message is that you really need to go and read the questions and the text that surrounds them – especially if you are Google, a bank, a pharmacy or have a connection with online broadcasting or high-profile sports events. The online form cannot be browsed (it won’t let you flick through from p 1 unless you answer the questions) but the pdf version is {here: http://ec.europa.eu/internal_market/consultations/docs/2010/e-commerce/questionnaire_%20e-commerce_en.pdf}

Just one taster: ‘Do you think that a lack of investment in law enforcement with regard to the Internet is one reason for the counterfeiting and piracy problem? Please detail your answer.’
Do you think the expected, or even acceptable, answer is ‘absolutely not, we spend far too much on that sort of law enforcement instead of catching serious criminals’? Me neither. If you can see the world in a grain of sand, I think you can see a pan-EU online law enforcement empire in a question like that.