June 30, 2005

If it were true, as was once so commonly stated, that the Internet is the Wild West, rough, lawless and just generally dangerous, then I have been playing Wyatt Earp this week. I have been poking my nose into the e-commerce saloon in defence of the sweet virgin consumer, when it was definitely not wanted, and firing my e-mail six-gun at the bad guys. But before I mosey off to the Calne Country Music Festival (oh yes indeedy – it is on now), I had better return to reality and admit that not only is the Internet now far from being 19th century Tombstone (and indeed the lawlessness of the Internet was always somewhat exaggerated), but that my role was in any case more that of the extra who runs off and calls out to the sheriff that the Clampetts are riding into town.

My first foray was to complain about the Web sites offering “free gifts” of ipods, phones and laptops when purchasing mobile phone signal boosters. It did not take a lot of reading of small print to realise that these gifts were dependent on so many factors that if I was to rely on such a source I would be listening to the ipod in my coffin, and not before. Perhaps mine was the all-important complaint that pushed the OFT into action, but I doubt that as I now know that the OFT had first warned about these “matrix” schemes back in December. They have now gained preventative undertakings from two of the leaders in the field. As the OFT spokesperson puts it, “these schemes are ultimately unsustainable and will eventually collapse to the detriment of thousands of people” – none of whom will be embracing e-commerce again in a hurry. But how come it took six months to stop it?

My second brush was with duffy7887, a seller on e-bay. Now I confess that I have a sneaking admiration for duffy7887, who embraces the philosophy that one should never give a sucker an even break with real enthusiasm. He was selling an e-book with details of police and bailiff auctions – but since his sales pitch described in great detail the items available, say a new 32” widescreen TV, included a picture of (say) a massive new TV and indicated that you should hurry as “there will be none left at these prices” (presumably because the world’s supply of electricity may be exhausted), it was not too surprising that some had gained a misleading impression – especially as the e-book was listed under TVs. Bidding in one case exceeded £200, with one question to seller being “Can you ship to Ireland?” – I think it is safe to say that people were misled. I complained to e-bay and see that duffy7887 was for a while operating a “Buy it Now” policy but is back to making offers that would make WC Fields proud. What has made me despair is that e-bay has done so little and that one of the feedback responses was positive despite the fact that the person concerned had paid £22 for the e-book, saying: “product description was misleading but I got what I paid for and quickly”.

What hope is there for protecting the consumer when the consumer is skipping to the guillotine? Somebody has to try – and a good deal harder than e-bay has tried with duffy7887. Is it just lack of resources? If so, we need to find some new resources rapidly – perhaps somebody can ask e-bay to contribute while whispering the word “liability” to them. Otherwise all duffy’s customers and all the “thousands” suffering from the matrix scheme will desert the Internet for more orthodox purchasing systems – even if they are systems that include buying knock-off perfume on street corners.

Contrast this with the latest BPI action aimed at file-sharers. I have no time for the people engaged in organised copyright abuse and applaud their actions. Despite some lukewarm and woefully misinformed press coverage, which relates at least in part to some careless words about proceedings against minors, there has been a general acceptance of the need for such action to act as an example to others. If only similar resolution and resources were available for the protection of consumers.

Laurence Eastham