European digital principles are being developed with a blind spot. EU policymakers want to extend existing rights to the digital space but overlook in every piece of legislation that digital is not neutral; certain offline rights are threatened by the digital transition. Policymakers must ensure that new legislation does not create legal gaps that did not previously exist. There is an opportunity to address this in the European Commission’s ongoing public consultation on digital fairness for consumers – open until 20 February 2023.
European digital principles are being developed with a blind spot. EU policymakers want to extend existing rights to the digital space. What they overlook in every piece of legislation is that digital is not neutral; certain offline rights are threatened by the digital transition. Policymakers must take extra care to ensure that new legislation does not create legal gaps that did not previously exist. There is an opportunity to address this in the European Commission’s ongoing public consultation on digital fairness for consumers – open until 20 February 2023.
EU consumer law must better protect people offline
Announced in the 2020 New Consumer Agenda, the European Commission aims in its public consultation on Digital fairness – fitness check on EU consumer law to assess whether additional action is needed to ensure an equal level of fairness online and offline. So far so good! However, as usual, what is meant is only that consumers need to be protected in the digital environment. Offline rights are not reconsidered, so offline consumers are excluded.
EU consumer legislation must protect the right of consumers to choose how to be contacted with important information: online or offline. Otherwise, this decision will be taken by companies, who do not have inclusion or fairness in mind – only costs. Maintaining such a choice is already provided for in the EU Consumer Rights Directive, but in a much too limited way. Only contracts are focused on. The scope needs to be extended to include other important communications from companies and service providers to consumers. For example: bills, invoices, statements, letters, and other documents.
No piece of EU legislation currently provides a legal requirement for companies to continue to provide such printed communications (alongside digital) for people who need or choose them.
Consumers are being pushed online without their consent
Forcing consumers to receive important communications digitally (sometimes without their consent), or charging them additional fees for maintaining paper communications, creates divisions and inequalities that did not previously exist.
Many people in Europe need or prefer to be contacted offline, including older people, people with low or no digital skills, carers, those who are financially insecure, unemployed people, and people with disabilities. Many such people are already vulnerable to exclusion in other areas of their life. When one also notes that only 54% of Europeans aged 16-74 possess basic digital skills (DESI, 2022), the gravity of this issue becomes clear. This is an enormous number of people, and it doesn’t even take into account the oldest in society – a clearly relevant demographic when it comes to digitisation.
There is a chance to rectify this situation in the EU Consumer Rights Directive. We urge the European Commission to take note of our concerns in the Staff Working Document that will be published as a result of this public consultation. Fairness online and offline will not be achieved otherwise.
It’s time to update the EU Consumer Rights Directive
Excluding printed communications from the conversations on digital fairness (and more widely, the digital transition) is not neutral. The shift to digital affects important offline rights.
We recommend that the EU Consumer Rights Directive is updated to include:
- A provision securing the delivery of information to consumers in a “durable medium” for all important communications. For example, bills, invoices, statements, letters, and government documents.
- Recognition that consumers should be offered the choice to receive all important communications in the format they choose: print or digital.
- Protections against being penalised in any way for preferring to receive information on paper. Not being forced to go digital, no extra charge for printed communications, and no difficulty to revert back to paper correspondence. Consumers should also have to give their express consent before paper communications are ceased.