The Influence of ICT on Consumer Protection; Empowerment or Impairment of the Consumer?
TILT Law & Technology Working Paper No. 015/2009
43 Pages Posted: 2 Dec 2009 Last revised: 15 Jul 2010
Date Written: November 30, 2009
Information and communication technologies can both strengthen and weaken the position of the parties involved in a commercial transaction. In Electronic Commerce, the phenomenon of changing bargaining powers is especially clear in view of consumers. E-consumers can, e.g., search the web for the lowest prices, no longer restricted by local boundaries, they can participate in collective-buying activities, and they can set up powerful grudge websites against a company. On the other hand, electronic transactions also pose new or greater risks for consumers. Problems can arise from e.g., foreign-language terms and conditions, unfamiliar applicable law, increasing privacy infringements, and payment in advance. This paper will give an illustration of the various technology-related shifts in the relationship between producer and consumer. These shifts can go both ways. Moreover, on the one hand they can strengthen each other while on the other hand they can counterbalance each other. In private law, the consumer is traditionally perceived as being a weak party in relation to the producer. If, because of ICT-driven shifts, the consumer’s position becomes stronger in relation to producers, the basis of consumer protection legislation might no longer be viable. However, if these shifts turn out to ultimately empower producers in relation to consumers, even stronger legal protection might need to be considered. In this respect, the following central question of research will be addressed in this paper: Need consumers still be considered to be the weak party in relation to producers, or has ICT equalized the relationship, undermining the basis of consumer protection legislation? The answer to this question will be sought with reference to the US as well as the EU legal framework regarding consumer protection.
Keywords: consumer protection, ICT, empowerment, impairment, US, EU
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