In 2021, the ACM will be focusing on three main topics: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital economy and the energy transition. The ACM also has a lot in store in the context of consumer protection with regard to these topics. For example, the ACM is going to take enforcement measures against online deception, it is investigating the affordability of energy for consumers and it is actively monitoring how the travel industry deals with cancellations and refunds of package holidays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The European Commission has set up similar focal points. In addition to these new initiatives, companies should also remain wary of previous enforcement practices. This blog will look at new initiatives that the ACM will be monitoring. What may companies expect and what should they bear in mind in their day-to-day operations? The main developments are addressed per topic below.
Consumers and the digital economy
The digital economy has been on the ACM’s mind for quite some time already. Recently, a trend can be observed in the focus on online deception. A year ago, the ACM published a Guideline to better protect consumers online. The ACM has been actively enforcing these rules since the end of 2020. For example, the ACM has addressed the online sales platform bol.com that it should inform a consumer more clearly who the seller of a product is. Bol.com does not only sell its own products, but also offers other sellers the possibility to sell their products via the bol.com platform.
Furthermore, the ACM has determined that online stores must inform their customers more clearly about delivery times and has forced an online store to stop using fake likes and fake followers. In March 2021, the ACM addressed the company behind the PlatteTV.nl website for automatically adding a paid service package to the consumer's shopping basket.
The ACM (together with the European Commission and other regulators) has also confronted platform giant AliExpress with the fact that its website was not in line with European consumer rules. AliExpress has promised, among other things, to make the cooling-off period clearer, to better reflect the rules on guarantees and to include additional costs.. Enforcement is likely to be further intensified in the coming year: according to the ACM, more protection is needed to increase trust in the digital economy.
More information on earlier investigations of online platforms can be found in this blog. The answers to the most frequently asked questions about online sales activities can be found at consumentenrecht.info (only in Dutch).
Consumers and energy transition
Consumer protection in the energy transition is also focused on deception. For example, the ACM has drawn up rules of thumb for companies regarding the sustainability claims they make when selling their products. In early 2021, the Guideline Sustainability Claims was finalized. That Guideline includes the aforementioned rules of thumb and provides practical examples to enable companies to make their sustainability claims correctly and transparently. As consumers increasingly take sustainability into account in their decisions, the ACM believes it is important that sustainability claims are clear, well-substantiated and fair. With the publication of the Guideline, the ACM indicated that it will start with enforcement.
This is in line with the ACM’s earlier call to combat the proliferation of sustainability labels and to enforce more stringently in the event of deception. In addition, the ACM will enter into discussions with consumers who experience problems with their heat supplier. Many conversations were about the so-called Thermal Energy Storage, a sustainable energy storage system. Consumers believe that the system has many teething troubles with which they are confronted on a daily basis. This topic fits in perfectly with the ACM’s intention to investigate how (sustainable) energy remains affordable for consumers.
Finally, the ACM has also submitted an extensive response to the European Commission’s proposal to provide consumers with better and more reliable information on the sustainability of products. The ACM is generally positive about the proposal, but warns that an information overload may be counterproductive. The ACM therefore recommends that information should be provided only if it is actually helpful, and, in addition, the information should be consistent. Furthermore, it is important that sustainability claims are verifiable. This can be achieved by providing standardized information. Since the energy transition is an important focus area of the ACM, a great deal of information on this subject will be published in the coming year. More information on sustainability can be found in our earlier blog.
Consumers and the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit a number of sectors particularly hard, such as the healthcare and travel sectors. This not only has consequences for the companies in these sectors, but also for consumers. At the beginning of the pandemic, the ACM took an understanding stance on the issue of vouchers in the travel industry. Consumers who had booked and paid for a package holiday but were unable to travel due to the situation, received a voucher for the amount of the trip. The voucher was in most cases valid for a period of one year. Halfway through 2020, the ACM thought that the implementation of the voucher scheme needed to be improved. For example, certain travel organizations were not clear about the fact that consumers are entitled to a refund after accepting a voucher. It was also not sufficiently emphasized that a residual amount that remains on the voucher if a consumer uses only part of the voucher does not expire.
As of January 1, 2021, the travel industry has stopped issuing vouchers. This means that all package holiday providers must refund consumers within 14 days if the trip does not go ahead. Furthermore, as of March 2021, the one-year term of many vouchers expired. From that moment on, the first refunds had to take place. The ACM is monitoring the handling of these refunds and notes that many companies have made the necessary preparations to ensure a smooth refund of travel funds. The ACM wants to prevent consumers from being duped at all times and indicates that it will take action if travel companies do not do their utmost to refund consumers.
European Commission and consumers
At the end of 2020, the European Commission drew up the European Consumer Agenda, in which it addresses, among other things, the role of consumers in the energy transition. Consumers must be better protected against greenwashing (making a product appear greener than it actually is). It also pays attention to the digital economy, in which consumers must receive the same level of protection as in the offline economy.
As part of the sustainability transition, the Commission launched a pilot of the Green Consumption Pledge in January 2021: a pledge by companies to accelerate their contribution to the green transition and help consumers make more sustainable purchases. The pilot will be evaluated in January 2022. Furthermore, as of March 2021, a renewed version of the energy label went into effect. The new label will initially apply to refrigerators and freezers, dishwashers, washing machines and televisions.
At the end of 2020 the Commission also published the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Service Act regarding the digital economy. These Acts will allow the digital market to be regulated, which will benefit consumer protection. We also addressed this legislation in this blog. The Commission's proposals will now be dealt with under the ordinary legislative procedure. The proposals are currently before the European Council. It will take some time before this legislation will enter into force, but it is expected that the legislation will have a major impact and will strengthen the protection position of consumers. The Commission recently proposed a new Roaming Regulation, which will ensure that consumers “roam like at home” while they are abroad. The Regulation is aimed at extending the current rules by a further ten-year period. Furthermore, a new regulation related to data governance was also proposed at the end of 2020. The regulation provides stricter rules for data retention.
The Commission is also concerned with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumers. With respect to the travel sector, the Commission has prepared an information document on the COVID-19 pandemic in conjunction with the Package Travel Directive. This regulation regulates the rights of travellers who have booked a package holiday. With the information document, the Commission aims to clarify the rights of consumers through practical examples.
Clearly, consumers will not be forgotten in 2021. Current social developments demonstrate the need for clear rules and protection. The regulators agree. The rules are there, but must now be implemented. Companies should in any event take into account an active ACM, which will be extra strict in monitoring compliance with the obligations relating to the focus areas. It is important to anticipate this development at an early stage in order to avoid (high) fines.
More information on consumer rules, as well as our other blogs, can be found at www.consumentenrecht.info.
More information on dawn raids by ACM and the European Commission can be found at www.invalacm.nl.