By Dr. Dinesh

World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD), is on 15th March it is  an annual occasion for celebration and solidarity within the international consumer movement. It marks the date in 1962 President John F Kennedy first outlined the definition of consumer  rights.WCRD is an opportunity to promote the basic rights of all consumers, for demanding that those rights are respected and protected, and for protesting the market abuses and social injustices which undermine them. WCRD was first observed on 15th March 1983, and has since become an important occasion for mobilising citizens.

 The theme for World Consumer Rights Day 2017 is ‘Building a digital world consumers can trust’.

Well over 3 billion, or 40% of the world’s population is online now, compared with just 1% in 1995, with all projections suggesting this number will continue to rise. Although this still leaves many consumers who are struggling to access these technologies, the rapid growth of the internet, mobile phones and other digital technologies has created opportunities and challenges for millions of consumers around the world. Whilst consumers undoubtedly benefit from the increased access, choice and convenience that these technologies deliver, questions remain about how to improve the quality of services, which online services consumers can trust, what happens to the data they share online and what consumers’ rights are in relation to digital products. The sheer pace of change is also a challenge. Whereas the telephone took 75 years to reach an audience of 50 million, Facebook took one year, and Instagram took just 6 months.

Digital technology has created unprecedented new opportunities for consumers to communicate, access information and choose from a range of products and services. yet, in increasingly internationalised markets, consumers face a number of challenges which, without action, could undermine confidence and trust. The consumer in today's digital world depends on communications networks such as the Internet, and the ability to access and share knowledge across those networks. The consumer movement has an important role in ensuring that such networks and the works exchanged across them are accessible, affordable, reliable and safe.

Many multinational platforms and digital companies have become indispensable to contemporary life, offering high quality, convenient digital interactions. The data monetisation model behind some, where people ‘exchange’ information about themselves for the service with no upfront financial cost, makes for a tantalising offer.   They are the default by which consumers experience and interact with digital - the gateway to the internet if you like: we don’t search, we Google, we don’t make videocalls, we Skype.  The dominance of a small number of firms is significant because people’s choice over whether to engage or not in the digital world is becoming increasingly limited. If a few large companies effectively become gateways to all the internet has to offer, then we have to ask questions about how their size and dominance impact consumer choice, power and protection? Large established players already marking out territory in the internet of things will have to gather and connect data to as many objects and people as possible to make their connected services thrive. The more data points connected, the more potentially valuable the insights, so drawing in and retaining as many customers as possible will be top of companies’ agenda.  Exercising choice could get harder for consumers, as they lean towards contracting with one company as an easy way of bringing together multiple services. In practice, switching provider by exiting contracts will be time consuming or inconvenient.  These limitations on choosing between providers are really important for the digital age.  If competition can no longer effectively deliver consumer protection through providing choice, then we need to approach things differently.   In fact there is the real opportunity to forge a positive consumer agenda for the digital age that addresses areas of consumer concern and offers real choice over how to participate.  A complex, integral and dominating set of relationships should not put us off arguing for a fairer and more accountable digital system for consumers. Widespread digital technology is here.  There is real potential for consumers to benefit but also a flip side presenting widespread negative consumer outcomes.  It is up to us to work together to ensure that the practices and delivery of large digital companies stand up to the scrutiny and expectations of the people whose lives are so entwined with them.

So What are the consumer rights?

• The right to satisfaction of basic needs - To have access to basic, essential goods and services: adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, public utilities, water and sanitation.

• The right to safety - To be protected against products, production processes and services that are hazardous to health or life.

• The right to be informed - To be given the facts needed to make an informed choice, and to be protected against dishonest or misleading advertising and labelling.

• The right to choose - To be able to select from a range of products and services, offered at competitive prices with an assurance of satisfactory quality.

• The right to be heard - To have consumer interests represented in the making and execution of government policy, and in the development of products and services.

• The right to redress - To receive a fair settlement of just claims, including compensation for misrepresentation, shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services.

• The right to consumer education - To acquire knowledge and skills needed to make informed, confident choices about goods and services, while being aware of basic consumer rights and responsibilities and how to act on them.

• The right to a healthy environment -To live and work in an environment that is non-threatening to the well-being of present and future generation

Consumer responsibilities

Consumer responsibilities to compliment consumer rights.

These remain crucial principles for many consumer rights organisations today:

• Critical awareness - consumers must be awakened to be more questioning about the provision of the quality of goods and services.

• Involvement or action - consumers must assert themselves and act to ensure that they get a fair deal.

• Social responsibility - consumers must act with social responsibility, with concern and sensitivity to the impact of their actions on other citizens, in particular, in relation to disadvantaged groups in the community and in relation to the economic and social realties prevailing.

• Ecological responsibility - there must be a heightened sensitivity to the impact of consumer decisions on the physical environment, which must be developed to a harmonious way, promoting conservation as the most critical factor in improving the real quality of life for the present and the future.

• Solidarity - the best and most effective action is through cooperative efforts through the formation of consumer/citizen groups who together can have the strength and influence to ensure that adequate attention is given to the consumer interest.

(Contributed by Dr. Dinesh, Member State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission)