To what degree is the Caribbean tech space mindful of consumers’ rights?

An discussion of the eight basic consumer rights and how they might be relevant to the Caribbean ICT/tech space.


Exactly a week ago today, 15 March, World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) was observed. Established in 1983, WRCD seeks “
to promote the basic rights of all consumers, demanding that those rights are respected and protected, and a chance to protest against the market abuses and social injustices which undermine those rights” (Source:  Consumers International).

Today, the consumer movement has established eight basic rights, which not only guide the work of consumer interest agencies worldwide, but also provide a litmus test for countries to determine the extent to which their frameworks support consumers. Listed below are the eight basic rights, and for each one, there is a brief discussion on how that specific right could be applied, or could be relevant, in the Caribbean’s ICT/tech space.

The right to satisfaction of basic needs

This right is speaks to having access to basic, essential goods and services, which in today’s world, includes telecoms. Some countries have established Internet access as a basic right, consistent with their obligation to provide their citizens with access to electricity and potable water. In the Caribbean, that posture towards Internet access has not been formally adopted, but among policymakers, the emphasis has been shifting from mobile/cellular access, which is nearly ubiquitous in most countries, towards data and the Internet. However, the wherewithal to realise similar ubiquity in the Internet space has not been evident, and to date, there appears be be considerable reliance on the telecoms firms to drive and finance the needed programmes and initiatives.

The right to safety

Although the focus of this right is on protecting “consumers against products, production processes and services that are hazardous to health or life” (Source:  Consumers International), it applies to the tech space in ways such as following ways:

  • ensuring that devices, especially wireless ones, are safe for prolonged use, for example with respect to non-ionising radiation
  • Ensuring that devices are well designed and built, and for example, will not explode or catch fire, potentially causing injury to users, and
  • Being mindful in the placement of transmitting towers, again to reduce the effect of non-ionising radiation on individuals, especially children, in the environs.

The right to be informed

Essentially, consumers need to be given the facts in order to make informed decisions. While responsibility lies with product creators, along with product vendors and suppliers, to provide consumers with adequate and truthful information, frequently such a requirement can be at odds with the business maximising its sales and its profits. Hence there is the need for consumer protection agencies – to keep businesses honest, and to protect consumers from dishonest or misleading labelling, advertising and promotions.

The right to choose

A key impetus for countries, especially those in the Caribbean, to move for the traditional monopolistic telecoms sectors, to more open and competitive ones, which currently are being being fostered, was to increase the choice of telecoms products and services available, at competitive prices. However, over the past few years, the effect of mergers and acquisitions has resulted in some countries now having less choice in products and services, and may even now have a de facto monopoly (or duopoly).

The right to be heard

When contentions arise between a business and consumer, it is crucial there is a avenue for intervention. Typically, the consumer is the one holding the short end of the stick, and at the very least, needs an opportunity to be heard. In the telecoms space, the service providers are usually required to establish a process to address consumer complaints, and when that fails, the process can be escalated to either the telecoms regulator, or to a consumer protection agency.

However, a second and wider context in which consumers need to be heard, is to have their interests represented on Government policy, and to provide feedback on products and services. Across the Caribbean, consumer protection groups tend to lead the charge on this front. Occasionally, and in some countries, there are public consultations and town hall meetings on a broad range of issues, some of which are ICT-related. Nevertheless, there may always be room for more opportunities for consumer input and feedback.

The right to redress

Following from the circumstances when there might be disputes between consumers and businesses, there ought to be scope for redress, for example, “to receive a fair settlement of just claims, including compensation for misrepresentation, shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services” (Source:  Consumers International). To a considerable degree and in many countries in the region, such matters may still need to be settled in court, which can be an expensive and protracted process. Further, Alternative Dispute Resolution is not as developed as is should be, especially the use of arbitration, and instituting binding decisions on conclusion of those processes.

Additionally, and with respect to telecoms, many of the regulators do not have juridical powers. Hence, there is a reliance on the reasonableness of the parties, especially the telecoms firm, to agree to restitution, at the end of the regulator’s intervention, or else the matter may need to be escalated to the courts.

The right to consumer education

This right appears to be two-pronged: first, ensuring that consumers are aware of their basic rights and responsibilities and how to exercise them; and second, providing consumers with the means “to acquire knowledge and skills needed to make informed, confident choices about goods and services” (Source:  Consumers International). With respect to the former, it is a country-level issue, to ensure that the rights and responsibilities consumers enjoy are clearly communicated. For the latter, and to a considerable degree, many countries, including those in Caribbean, rely on information being published on the Internet by private concerns. Unfortunately, it means that the information needed may not be available, and if it is, they may not always be accurate, or thorough enough.

The right to a healthy environment

Finally, this right focusses on the right to “live and work in an environment that is non-threatening to the well-being of present and future generations” (Source:  Consumers International). While it might not be readily clear how this right could be relevant to the ICT/tech space, increasingly, the world is grappling with electronic waste, and its impact on the environment. Most Caribbean countries do not have the mechanisms or services in place to ensure large scale recycling or management of the disposal of electronic waste. As a result, they either are being dumped in landfills, and are being otherwise improperly disposed, which could have far reaching implications to the environment and to us, as citizens and consumers, in the long term.

 

Image credit:  americans4financialreform (flickr)

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