Electronic commerce will not take off for the majority of consumers until they are sure that the Internet is private and secure, says the latest policy report from the UK Consumer Association (CA).
"The Internet is a very exciting medium for consumers, it's a truly global market," said Alan Stevens, editor of 'Which? Online', published by the CA. "But it also needs to be a safe one, as safe as any other remote way of paying for goods and services, such as over the telephone."
Before customers accept the Internet as a reliable place to shop, existing contract and consumer laws must be seen to apply, says the independent watchdog.
"The Internet is not a special case and consumer protection law as it stands is sufficient, but it needs clarification as to how it applies because there is precious little case precedent currently," said Stevens.
An EC Directive on distance purchasing is due to be implemented in 1999 and includes clauses assuring the consumer of the identity of the merchant, the right of the consumer to withdraw from the contract without penalty for up to seven days and the requirement of the supplier to execute the order within 30 days.
But the report, 'Consumer Transactions on the Internet', argues that it is in the interests of online merchants looking to attract a mass market to establish quickly a self-regulating mechanism overseen by a statutory regulator, so that electronic commerce is not held back until EC regulations are in force.
Stevens said the Consumer Association welcomes the recent announcement from Visa and Mastercard regarding their joint implementation of the SET security standard. This is a step in the right direction, he said, but security is only one aspect - privacy is also important.
The report recommends that the full force of the EC Directive on Data Protection be applied, to prevent information gathered while consumers are visiting or purchasing from a site being used for database marketing without their consent.
The report also recommends greater powers for the Advertising Standards Authority to act against misleading online advertising.
Unlike the Internet, the CA's powers are limited by geography, so the watchdog is warning consumers to be wary of buying goods from sites outside the EU, especially if the value of the transaction is high and the merchant is not a well-known company.
A summary of the report can be obtained from www.which.net/nonsub/cacacampaigns/currcampaigns/internet.html.
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