New EU consumer protection rules on website blocking cause concern

16 Nov 2017

MEP Julia Reda, who raised concerns about the new laws. Image: Julia Reda/Flickr

New rules are said to help protect consumers against scams, but website-blocking powers are being questioned.

Last Tuesday (14 November), the EU voted to pass the new Consumer Protection Cooperation Regulation, which gives consumer protection agencies in EU member states more power against online breaches.

The regulations are touted as a way to better protect EU customers against rogue traders by closing legal loopholes that are exacerbated because each EU country has a different consumer protection system.

Consumer agencies can now impose penalties such as fines or periodic penalty payments; order the display of a warning to customers; or order a hosting service provider to remove, disable or restrict access to an online interface if there are no other effective means to stop an illegal practice.

Combatting rogue traders

EU Parliament negotiator Olga Sehnalová said: “The new rules will strengthen and improve cooperation between all consumer protection actors, so that they can more easily monitor compliance and address cross-border infringements.

“National authorities, the commission and consumer organisations, all acting together, will create an effective mechanism to combat rogue traders, both online and offline, and enforce consumers’ rights in the Single Market.”

The legislative text was approved by 591 votes to 80, but there was some criticism aimed at it. MEP Julia Reda said the new law “establishes overreaching internet-blocking measures that are neither proportionate nor suitable for the goal of protecting consumers, and come without mandatory judicial oversight”.

Concerns about online censorship

In a blogpost, Reda outlined her concerns about the new rules: “This forces internet access providers to create a website-blocking infrastructure, which risks being abused later on for any number of other purposes, including censorship.

“To give a recent example, independence-related websites were blocked in Catalunya just weeks ago. These actions could only be taken so quickly because website-blocking infrastructure had previously been put in place for other purposes, such as barring access to sites involving copyright infringement.”

Last March, Reda proposed that the last-resort measure should be the removal of content that infringes on consumer protection rights rather than blocking websites outright, but Sehnalová agreed to a compromise that adopted the website-blocking proposal from the council.

Watered-down protections

Reda said the compromise saw the watering down of other consumer protection measures. She said: “The original proposal would have given consumer protection authorities the power to order traders to compensate consumers that have been harmed.”

She added that the outcome “essentially makes such compensation voluntary by subjecting it to ‘the trader’s initiative’”.

An element was also deleted from the proposal that would have allowed consumer protection authorities to restitute illicit profits obtained as a result of breaking consumer laws.

Reda had tried to introduce new amendments but they were voted down. As this a law and not a directive, it is obligatory for all EU states.

MEP Julia Reda, who raised concerns about the new laws. Image: Julia Reda/Flickr

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects