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Expanding on the coverage of the new e-commerce policy framework, it appears that one of the critical but weaker links in the framework is consumer protection. (Read: “E-commerce: pay attention to ‘competition’,” published January 17, 2019). Indeed, the matter of consumer protection is featured in the policy document, but its coverage lacks the necessary depth that ought to be associated with this billion-dollar market. As the policy implementation starts rolling, global best practices must be incorporated.

As per global database of Unctad, there is no data on “online consumer protection” legislation available for Pakistan. Well, it’s because the legislation doesn’t exist even in a draft form, and perhaps this information wasn’t shared officially with the organization. That’s not the right kind of message to send to the world, given that countries like Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Turkey and Sri Lanka all have legislations in place to protect consumers in the online space.

Gleaning through the consumer protection guidelines of OECD and Unctad, it becomes clear that the issue at heart is to create an ecosystem where consumers can make informed choices about their purchases. The travails of an online shopper start when they are not provided authentic, sufficient or updated information about the specifics of the product and the identity and whereabouts of the vendor. Combine false information with push marketing and consumers become prone to deceptive marketing.

The purchase itself can be a troublesome experience for an average consumer if appropriate regulations do not exist and the market is on its own. For instance, sellers need to clearly and meaningfully spell out all the terms of the sale prominently, convey the real price (including hidden charges and taxes, or any other fees) that a consumer will end up paying. Moreover, it needs to alert about problems that can arise while consumers make online payments, as well redress available to make the consumer whole.

However, perhaps the real test of the seller’s commitment and consumer’s patience arises after the goods have been ordered. Consumers must be provided a quick recourse, including refunds, if the goods are damaged, goods are not identical to the ones ordered, goods don’t work, or if goods are delivered after the promised delivery time. The sector’s track record isn’t exactly stellar in this regard. (For more on that, read “Kaymu: Under a cloud,” published February 13, 2017).

The sellers also have great responsibility to protect user privacy by creating a firewall to secure customers’ personal, payment and location data. For that, the personal data protection bill needs to be legislated soon. Meanwhile, digital firms and financial institutions alone cannot be trusted on this issue, as evidenced in the data breach at Careem and at some banks in 2018. (For more on that, read “On data privacy,” published May 10, 2018, and “Payment security: buckle up!” published November 30, 2018).

Given the scale and nature of consumer protection issues, it appears that the existing policy’s uniform code of conduct won’t cut it. It is better to have consumer-centric codes of conduct that are tailored for all segments of digital economy, dealing with peculiar issues in each sector. The “growth” mantra associated with the ongoing digital drive will not like it, but does the sector not need to become trustworthy from the start?

In addition, existing consumer protection laws at federal and provincial levels need to be amended. Currently, the onus of proof lies on consumers to demonstrate personal harm or damage. This is unfair. The onus for disproving harm or loss of benefit from the economic exchange has to be put on the vendor, which, unlike consumer, has much more resources. In addition, consumer protection councils must be set up to raise awareness of consumer rights. Also, consumer courts need’ capacity needs to be enhanced and modernized to deal with the nature of the digital economy.