CICLE project – can consumer law enforcement be boosted by the power of complaints data?
No matter how well drafted a consumer law is, it won’t succeed without the right market surveillance and enforcement structure around it. Without visible and effective enforcement of consumer law, there’s a risk that harmful business practices become normalized, eroding both the principles and practice of consumer law and consumer confidence.
Effective enforcement relies on the engagement of consumers, consumer organizations and consumer protection authorities, as well as easy access to justice and redress through alternative dispute resolution schemes. In a single market such as the EU, co-operation between different national consumer protection authorities and consumer organizations is also crucial.
Streamlining consumer enforcement
Consumer organizations have their finger on the pulse of consumers’ experiences, through testing and research and through their role in collecting consumer complaints. In an increasingly digitized world, where consumer journeys are more and more streamlined, they rightfully expect complaints against companies that break the law to be dealt with quickly and decisively.
However, currently the time it takes for consumer complaints collected by consumer organizations to reach public authorities is too long. This is partly due to the legacy systems supporting consumer complaints’ websites and databases, and partly due to low levels of co-ordination between organizations and authorities.
The power of consumer complaints data
The CICLE project (which stands for Co-operation for Improving Consumer Law Enforcement) aims to change this. Its main objective is to maximize the data captured by new and improved consumer complaints online dashboards. Complaints can be much more easily classified and mapped and there will be new capacity for a live tracking tool to generate alerts to authorities and detect trends relating to product types or companies.
The tracking tool can feed into the EU’s consumer law breaches mapping carried out by the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network to enhance European enforcement.
The type of common consumer problems identified might include complaints about devices breaking down too soon or being hard to fix, or about being a victim of a scam as they are classified by nature of problems. The dashboard also record the responsiveness of companies to complaints and the top 20 companies with most complaints.
To close the circle, the online complaints dashboard will also provide access to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) schemes. Each time a complaint is filed and a breach occurs, consumers will be redirected (via an online ADR finder) to existing public dispute resolution systems.
Data for enforcement
The trend data will also provide incredibly valuable evidence for any resulting legal proceedings or company and market inquiries. Consumer organizations too can make use of the data to launch national class actions and to co-ordinated enforcement actions across different member states. This is something the new Collective Proceedings Directive hopes to encourage and something Euroconsumers has long been involved with - launching co-ordinated cross-border actions against VW for ‘dieselgate’ and Apple for built in obsolescence of devices.
Cross-border enforcement is recognised as a major challenge, particularly in the digital economy. CICLE’s ambition is to demonstrate that co-operation between consumer organizations (OCU in Spain and Altroconsumo in Italy) and respective enforcement authorities can be replicated elsewhere so that as many EU consumers as possible can benefit from equal enforcement measures and access to justice. Euroconsumers’ close links to BEUC means we are well placed to share learnings and encourage participation in co-ordinated actions.
The overall hope is that this will build the profile of consumer organizations’ role as effective watchdogs, increase the trust of consumers that companies will be held to account. It should encourage more people to feed in complaints about problems, knowing their voices will count.
Progress so far
So far, Altroconsumo and OCU have launched pilot online dashboards on their websites and created an internal automated alert system to detect any new alarming activity or breach.
The database shows alerts when companies have received a higher than average number of complaints, or are seeing a growth in complaints over the previous month. It also shows which companies are not responding to complaints or how many are left unresolved. If a particular type of complaint is repeatedly made by different consumers this is also flagged. These alerts suggest ongoing and escalating issues with companies.
One challenge with cross-border enforcement is the variety of ways that infringements are recorded. The lack of shared classifications and sub-classifications for a common category such as ‘scam’ makes it difficult to match patterns of bad practice nationally or cross-border.
The back end structure of the dashboard has tackled this major challenge by establishing a framework of classifications covering different sectors and sub categories relevant to the sectors beneath. For example, in transportation, complaints could be logged under baggage loss or flight cancellation, and in energy they could be logged as supply disruption or problems with switching.
The data is currently showing that of the 20 most complained about companies in Spain and Italy, most are in the travel and leisure sectors. Flight and holiday comparison site eDreams was the subject of many complaints, and its ‘eDreams Prime’ subscription programme is being examined by Altroconsumo and OCU to see if it breaks consumer laws on Unfair Terms and Conditions and/or Unfair Commercial Practices.
Viagogo, the global online platform for sport and music tickets saw a huge jump in complaints between March and April 2022, suggesting problems with ticket refunds when an event is canceled or consumers withdraw from their purchases.
As usage of the tool grows we expect to see more detailed patterns of types of problems and how consumers are impacted. By alerting consumer protection authorities to these problems and company practices which breach consumer law, we expect to see a much swifter response to complaints which will put pressure on companies to raise their game.