There is no need to beat around the bush. The era of tech-optimism is over, replaced by a crisis of trust. While there are strong rules in Europe which could help consumers to regain trust, their enforcement is sadly lacking.

Who helps and protects consumers, then?

In 2010, the Norwegian Consumer Council filed a complaint against Facebook for breaching data protection law. Our complaint argued that Facebook “allows some of these [third party] applications to automatically access a user’s profile information without the user’s consent”. Sound familiar?

We are witnessing clear violations of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Yet, some practices continue with impunity.

Fast forward to 2018, on 17 March it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had taken advantage of similar tools to scrape people´s Facebook profiles including personal data such as date of birth, current city and friends’ lists. This information had been used in an attempt to change voters’ behaviour in the 2016 US elections.

Just a few weeks ago, the German consumer federation (vzbv) won a case at the Court of Justice of the European Union against pre-ticked cookie notices. Despite being illegal, these notices have been and keep being used all over the internet to manipulate consumers into “consenting”, giving consumers the false impression that there is no alternative to tracking. Vzbv launched the case in 2013, meaning it took six years until a decision was reached. Implementation and enforcement of the decision might even take longer.

Picture of the cover of the report "Every step you take" by the Norwegian Consumer Council (Forbrukerrådet). The report sets out how deceptive design lets Google track users 24/7.

Around 76% of mobile phones globally run on Google’s Android operating system. It has been proven time and time again that by default, Google collects vast amounts of data through Android. While in theory consumers should have the option to turn something on or off, the company uses dark patterns to manipulate the users into allowing continued tracking and data harvesting. BEUC’s coordinated legal complaint against these practices was filed in November 2018, almost one year ago. We still have not heard any news about the state of play of our complaint before the lead authority, the Irish Data Protection Commission.

French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir had to litigate for more than four years in court to struck down 250 clauses of Twitter’s terms and conditions for being illegal or unfair. Similarly, UFC-Que Choisir had to wait five years to obtain similar results against Google and Facebook.

Fast infringements, but slow compliance and enforcement

There is a lesson to be learned from these cases. Clear breaches of the law are not dealt with properly by authorities, or they are pushed back through endless procedures. In the meantime, the tech giants are entrenching and normalising their (highly disputed) practices.

Sometimes, the abusive practices take on new forms as technologies and business models develop, making some legal cases less relevant by the time they are concluded. As a result, the system that is in place to protect consumers often falls short.

The era of tech-optimism is over, replaced by a crisis of trust.

There are countless academic studies, independent reports, and pieces of research from public interest groups such as ourselves that detail the abuses and the potential harm of various practices of tech companies. Yet, compliance and enforcement action often seems to be lackluster or lagging behind. For example, we are witnessing clear violations of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Yet, some practices continue with impunity.

Stepping up enforcement to boost consumer trust

On 1 October 2019, BEUC and Oxford University professor Ariel Ezrachi published a report about how to take a more holistic approach to enforcement. “Digital markets require a multi-disciplinary approach” the report says. The study calls for competition, data protection and consumer authorities to cooperate.

Reports such as this are welcome initiatives and we must continue to call out the practices of the tech giants for what they are: abuses of power. The evidence against the unfettered gods of technology or even companies that are unknown to many keeps mounting. To curb this trend, we need enforcement agencies with teeth, working together across legal disciplines and jurisdictions, and with the willingness and capacity to move swiftly.

Consumer trust in digital services will keep eroding unless we are able to deliver real changes that improve consumer welfare. It is time we call a spade a spade – the continued abuse of power by these companies needs to end. Only then can we truly benefit from technology.

Posted by Finn Myrstad