The 19th edition of the European Consumer Day Con­ference organised by the European Economic and Social Committe (EESC) was held in Malta earlier last week. This event, usually held in the country holding the EU presidency, provides a forum where repre­sentatives of government, EU institutions and civil society organisations can exchange views on various issues related to consumer affairs.

This year’s event focused on the Digital Single Market and how it benefits consumers. Today’s advanced technologies are bringing unprecedented changes in production processes, consumption and access to services. Hence, the need for Europe to have a fully functional Digital Single Market to ensure that European citizens benefit from the advantages of the digital era safely and on an equal footing.

In her opening address Helena Dalli, Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties, said the Maltese presidency had put the Digital Single Market on top of its agenda. There was no better way to reconnect with people than to show that the EU is there to protect their welfare as consumers.

“Boosting the Digital Single Market is a necessity – we need to embrace digitisation, as it is now part of our lifestyle,” Dr Dalli said.

The Minister noted that consumers still faced barriers when shopping online for goods and services, with only 15 per cent of citizens shopping online from other EU countries.

Dr Dalli emphasised the need for increased confidence in the Digital Single Market – otherwise consumers will remain too cautious or unable to shop online due to the existing barriers.

Data sharing is essential for digital business but consumers who share their data need to be assured that it is safeguarded

She also referred to the geo-blocking proposal which helps increase consumer confidence in the Single Market and noted that unjustified geo-blocking limits consumer opportunities and choices, thus being the main cause of consumer dissatisfaction while leading to fragmentation of the Single Market.

The conference focused on discussing issues on how advanced technologies and the future digital era will impact European citizens’ lives. What are the risks of sharing data online?

Data sharing is essential for digital business but consumers who share their data need to be assured that it is safeguarded and that online traders are complying with data protection rules. Other issues discussed involved Artificial Intelligence and how this would change production and consumption of products and services.

The effects and benefits of the Digital Single Market on consumers were also widely discussed.

Joyce Borg, director general of the Office for Consumer Affairs within the MCCAA, spoke about the importance for Malta, a small  island, to be part of the Single Market. Maltese consumers are aware of the potential of a connected Digital Single Market. In fact, the 11th Consumer Conditions Scoreboard places Malta third in intra-EU cross-border purchases.

Malta follows Luxembourg and Austria. Limited choice of products and services urge Maltese consumers to be more adventurous and more confident in online buying.

Ms Borg also discussed the difficulties Maltese consumers faced when shopping online. Unjustified geo-blocking through unauthorised re-routing to other websites and non-delivery to Malta were realities faced.

High delivery costs are another major problem. There are instances where the cost of the delivery of a product is higher than the product itself. The review of the Consumer Protection Regulations, for which a general approach has been reached under the Maltese presidency, is crucial as it aims at modernising co-operation bet-ween national administration and reducing damage to consumers because of cross-border infringements in EU consumer law. The effective implementation of this regulation will enhance confidence in online shopping and therefore contribute to the success of the Digital Single Market.

Odette Vella is director, Information, Education and Research Directorate, Office for Consumer Affairs, Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority.

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