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Consumer Policy Policy Developments Information Society
Summary Report of the Round Table on "The Future of Consumer Organisations in the Information Society" (9/09/1998)
This Round Table considered the impact of Information Society developments on consumer organisations and the implications for their future. The number of participants at this meeting was limited in order to ensure an active exchange of ideas and experience. Nevertheless, there were representatives from virtually all Member-States and from most of the European Federations.
The principal points that were discussed included.
The opening presentation, by Gianni DOMINICI (European Commission), concerned the results of a questionnaire sent to consumer organisations concerning the extent of their informatics equipment, services and training needs.
Mr. DOMINICI thought that it was possible to identify three stages in the "computerisation process" of consumer organisations:
Any organisation that has not received of this questionnaire, or which has received it but not yet replied, may download a copy. Once completed, the questionnaire should be returned either as an e-mail attachment to the following address:
...or by ordinary post to the following address:
Mr. K. I. Roberts
Jim MURRAY (Director of BEUC) opened the discussion on "What have been the effects of the new technologies on consumer organisations so far?" by referring to the use of these technologies to facilitate the task of lobbying and the provision of political representation. The flow of information to politicians has certainly increased, but this carries the risk of "information overload" and not all messages are read. E-mail also provides a means of obtaining a rapid response from member-organisations and this could have an impact on the nature of consumer organisations. If consumer/citizens are able to make their views known to public authorities and commercial organisations directly, this "direct democracy" would call into question the role of consumer organisations as intermediaries. The borderless nature of the Internet could stimulate some consumer organisations to provide their services on a trans-national basis.
The introductory presentation on membership issues was given by Wim VANRYCKEGHEM (from TEST-ACHATS, BE). The reasons why membership of consumer organisations was tending to decline included long lead times in testing, only partial coverage of the market, and the difficulty of providing personalised information. In order to remain independent, consumer organisations had to be self-supporting, but this raised the question of how much consumers were willing to pay for information or advice. The experience of UFC shows that a significant amount of revenue can be generated by electronic services. Trying to find the right combination of fixed and variable fees was a challenge that consumer organisations should consider as a matter of urgency.
Mr. Sandro GAUDENZI (a consultant from Italy) presented the results of his study-trip to the USA where he was particularly interested in "virtual communities and user groups". These developments reflected the need of consumers for the assistance of intermediaries to find information and to make comparisons between various offers of goods or services. Suppliers were eager to provide such services as this enabled them to compile valuable data on consumers' habits that they could either use or sell to other interested parties. Another development of interest was that "Amazon", the Internet book supplier, had begun to provide, to its customers on a personalised basis, "objective" information on other sectors.
The ensuing discussion raised the issues of the need to have "closed" user groups in order to avoid libel suits, and the difficulty of providing "personalised" information
Unfortunately, the next speaker foreseen in the Programme, Mr. Alan STEVENS from Consumers' Association UK, did not arrive in Brussels because of an extended delay to the departure of his flight from London. Therefore, the meeting was unable to hear about the experimental service of "Which? On-line".
In introducing the discussion on the "Effect on the 'bottom line'", Dr. Pieter SIEBER (Stiftung Wahrentest DE) emphasised that the essential question was not just that of how to finance a web site on the Internet. Consumer organisations would have to reconsider their "raison d'être", especially in view of the growing expectation of consumers for obtaining personalised information. Dr. SIEBER was of the opinion that consumer organisations should provide basic information PLUS some special interest information and combine the tasks of publishing general information with that of providing personalised information. VKI of Austria had had significant success with a "payphone" service.
Emma BONINO (Commissioner responsible for Consumer Policy) opened the afternoon session with a speech in which she re-emphasised the political importance for consumers of developments in the Information Society. Although ensuring the integration of consumer interests in initiatives from other Services of the Commission was an important part of Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General's activities, Mme. Bonino also expressed her aspiration to launch a specific initiative aimed at developing a European consumer information network based on the new information and communication technologies. Such a network would require an increased degree of co-operation between consumer organisations and the Commission, as well as amongst consumer organisations themselves.
Mr. Henk NICOLAI (one-time senior official with Consumentenbond, and now a specialist consultant NL) presented his ideas on how to organise and operate a consumer information network, based on the experience gained from the pilot-project web site "Consumerweb" that he developed in co-operation with VKI of Austria. He was in favour of establishing a single "portal" web-site for consumer information which should have links to other sites containing netural and unbiased information. The portal site should be multi-lingual and be free of any charge.
Hans-Michael KAY (International Testing Ltd.) referred to the lessons that had been learnt from the experience of promoting co-operative action on comparative testing. Mr. Kay was in favour of basing any joint system of consumer information on the Consumerweb project, and the organisation could benefit from the experience of International Testing in developing rules and procedures that took account of the diversity of consumer organisations.
Kenneth ROBERTS (European Commission) concluded the presentations of the afternoon session by further elaborating on the concept of a European consumer information network as announced by Mme. BONINO, including outlining some additional ideas of the services that such a network might eventually offer on a joint basis. Other points that were raised during the discussions were:
In summing-up the discussion about the development of a consumer information network, Mme. MANFREDI distinguished between two levels of co-operation:
As a first step, it was necessary to concentrate on the first type of co-operation, as this would provide a valuable source of feedback from consumer organisations. Mme. MANFREDI proposed that the Commission establish a new permanent "Group of experts" on the Information Society. This Group would meet at least once a year but could also use the new technologies (e.g. e-mail; video-conferencing) for "virtual" meetings. It was noted that the idea of a regular monitoring of developments in consumer organisations had found favour: this could be done by an annual questionnaire complemented by notifications on an ad hoc basis as appropriate.
As for the proposal to establish a joint EU-wide consumer information system, further work was necessary to clarify various aspects of this project. In particular, the financial aspects would obviously be of great importance and, in this connection, there was a need for research on consumers' attitudes to the idea of paying for information and advice as well as detailed information on the possibility of obtaining financial assistance from the Commission's budget (e.g. Fifth Framework Programme). The best way of proceeding would be to establish a working-group that would define in more detail what would be the implications of such a network in terms of content, finance and stages of development. Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General will prepare a plan of work and issue invitations to participate in the working-group. It was proposed to convene another meeting to assess progress, before the end of this year.