Consumers and a digital world

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World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) was celebrated on March 15, and was used as an opportunity to promote the basic rights of all consumers, to demand that those rights are respected and protected, and a chance to protest against the market abuses and social injustices which undermine those rights. This year’s theme, “Building a digital world consumers can trust” was appropriate, as according to Consumer International, 40 per cent of the world’s population is currently online.
Digital technology is having a dramatic impact on consumers around the world, creating many new benefits, including better communication, access to information and greater choice and convenience. While consumers undoubtedly benefit from these technologies, there are questions about how to establish access to the Internet for the many consumers who are not connected, how to improve the quality of services, which online services and products consumers can trust and what happens to the data they share online.
It is estimated that by 2020, 52 per cent of the world’s population will be online — this means the number of people accessing the Internet will have grown by a third in just five years. Technology has given many consumers more choice, convenience and information, but important issues remain.
Guyana joined in the observance to mark the occasion, which brought together more than 200 member organisations in more than 100 countries to champion the rights of consumers everywhere. Undoubtedly, there are important issues to be addressed, for instance, people still are not sure what their rights to redress are when it comes to online sales. What is digital consumer trust and how can we build it?
During the launch of GTT high-speed Internet in Region Two (Pomeroon-Supenaam) recently, Public Telecommunications Minister Cathy Hughes pointed to the benefits to e-commerce, and encouraged persons from all backgrounds and professions to use the Internet as a way of finding online markets. She expounded on her belief that Information and Communications Technology (ICT) would deliver the transformation within the Guyana, noting too that enhanced connectivity would facilitate opportunities for business development, research and education. Certain services at the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) and the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) are already available online and the Minister assured that the objective is to place every single public service online including applications for birth and death certificates; driver’s licences; business compliance certificates; and land, housing, mining and forestry permits among others.
While it is clear that efforts are underway to give those not yet connected a chance to do so, at an affordable cost, the challenge is in ensuring everyone’s data is kept safe and secure and to help consumers know which services they can trust. Integral to this is consumer protection and empowerment.
If Guyana is to progress along the digital trajectory, consumers will be required more than ever to give personal information such as bank account details, credit card details, email addresses, identity details or medical information when accessing goods and services online. When this information is lost, or stolen, the effects can be serious. Consumers, therefore, need to be aware of their rights and what actions can be taken. Local consumer protection bodies in Guyana, including the Guyana National Bureau of Standards, the Public Utilities Commission and the Competition and Consumers Affairs Commission should be lauded for their continued efforts to sensitise the public on their rights and for dissemination of pertinent information. These entities have also recognised that in this digital age, consumers need to be protected more than ever, and have charged service providers to find secure and reliable ways of utilising data and to address the challenges by developing strategies that will lead to a trustworthy digital world for all consumers. It is now up to businesses to create more reliable and secure means of conducting business.