Net Results: Consumers face unequal battle doing business online

Contractual trickiness seems designed to benefit business but not facilitate the consumer

Why is it that some businesses are happy to use the benefits of the internet to take a consumer’s money, but not use them to make it just as easy to refund it to change a contract or to cancel a service? I’m sure many readers out there have had frustrating personal experiences of the lack of parity in this area. One of mine concerns an exasperating rental car broker based in the UK.

I had arranged to collect a car in San Francisco for 10 days, then I realised I needed to return the car two days earlier – but I couldn’t just adjust the dates online. Nor could I phone the helpdesk service. Instead, I would have to write a letter – not an email, a letter – and post it to the broker to arrive at least seven days before the reservation dates I wanted to change. Most people would find it difficult to comply with those terms.

Once back in Ireland, I rang the European Consumer Centre's Irish office to complain – it handles cross-border EU consumer issues – and was told that the car rental sector generally was on its radar for contractual trickiness. So much so that the Irish office submitted reports to the European Commission in 2005 and 2008 (both available online) recommending legislative change.

Nonetheless, despite this useful work by the Irish office, no European-level action has yet been taken, despite a large volume of complaints. The industry prefers for self-regulation – which is manifestly not enough.


However, in my specific case at least, the UK-based broker definitely had no right to demand a written letter rather than an email. Under the EU Ecommerce Directive 2000/31/EC, businesses must accept electronic communications as well as written communications in the transaction of services.

Under the directive, all EU businesses must enable transactions and communications to be conducted “easily, directly, permanently and efficiently”, according to the consumer centre’s spokesman. However, 15 years after that EU directive came into effect, even digital companies are weaving and ducking when it comes to the interpretation of those four words.

Take broadband, phone and television service providers. Although they all make it easy to sign up for and add-on additional services online, it is a hassle to cancel or downgrade services, as I found when I tried to change a service bundle contract with UPC.

Confusingly, from my online account, I was seemingly able to proceed to change a package by selecting a different one for my address. And I assumed it had been changed. Only months later did I notice I was still being charged the old service rate.

Eventually I discovered that I couldn’t just change my package online (unless I wanted to upgrade it). I would have to cancel it by letter or email, wait 30 days, then contact the company again to change my package.

Which (no doubt like many thousands of people) I kept forgetting to do – or when I tried, I would spend so long on hold that I would give up. Meanwhile, months more went past, while I paid for a package I wasn’t using. According to the ECC spokesman, this approach falls outside the intent, at least, of the ECommerce Directive. If I can order services using my own personal web-based account with a service provider, I should be able to give notice and change packages using that same electronic format.

The websites of communications services providers in general, make it difficult for a consumer to understand how to change or cancel a service. This should not only be in the small print of a user contract.

When I asked the Irish Competition and Consumer Protection Commission about all this, it said: "This is a sector that has been identified through our consumer contacts and also in our recent consumer detriment study as an area where consumers face issues. The commission is currently in the process of examining a number of issues in this sector, including contractual terms and conditions, as set out in service provider contracts with consumers."

That said, the commission noted that currently, organisations can allow consumers to purchase services or goods through one method of electronic communication and cancel or change them through a different method.

UPC told me in a written response that its terms are laid out in its contracts, including the need to cancel services by email or mail. But come on, folks. It is the lack of joined-up electronic services that grates. It is the failure to provide clearly stated, easily found guidance for cancellations or package changes on a website.

Why can't I change my package online, satisfying the email notification requirement through the use of a simple html "mailto" linked to the request? The technology to facilitate this has been there for the 15 years of the ECommerce Directive. Any schoolchild in a Coder Dojo could create a mailto in three minutes.

If businesses can create contracts and take money through a website, then they should be required to also alter contracts via the same technical format.

Consumers need better legislation to put a stop to such unnecessary online jiggery-pokery designed to benefit the business, but not equally facilitate the consumer.