At the workshop "Broadband Access and Consumer Rights" held at the Baku Internet Governance Forum, stakeholders came together to discuss the consumer protection dimension of broadband Internet services. The panel included members representing regulators, academia, the private sector (both content and infrastructure providers), and of course consumer groups. As co-organisers of the workshop, moderator Jeremy Malcolm from Consumers International, and Charley Lewis of the LINK Centre of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, were the first to speak. Jeremy briefly contextualised the discussion in terms of the eight consumer rights, which include the right to be informed, the right to choose, the right to be heard, the right to redress and the right to consumer education.
Charley then laid the groundwork for subsequent presenters, outlining four issues that came out of the LINK Centre's recent work on consumer protection in the telecommunications and Internet space in East and Central Africa. First was the need to ensure that consumers have a voice to raise issues and participate in regulatory processes. Second, the need to ensure that consumers have a proper choice in terms of services, quality of service, price, etc. Third, mandatory processes to deal with complaints and quality of service issues. Finally, the need to ensure provision of information to consumers in the broad ICT space. Amongst the top sets of consumer issues identified were those relating to access to services, qualify of services, and the price of the service, as well as contracts and billing issues, and others on which there has been less research to date. In addressing these policymakers are suggested to have a proper legal mandate, that is sufficiently broad, with clarity of responsibilities in areas of cojurisdiction, and supported by sufficient resources. In exercising this mandate they can survey consumers, establish standards, create proper complaints procedures, and identify issues based on reports by operators, and must also communicate well to consumers. Consumers in turn can also communicate back to operators and regulators, and have successfully used social media to do so.
Sam Paltridge from the OECD was the next panelist, speaking about the OECD's consumer policy toolkit, which is designed to be applicable across all industries. Last year it was extended to provide a set of principles that consumer authorities can apply to communications services. The consumer issues that were identified in this process mirrored those mentioned by Charley, but a particular example worthy of note is the use of "fine print" in consumer contracts, that make it very difficult to understand and compare terms and conditions. The OECD suggests a graduated approach to enforcement, beginning with consumer education and progressing to fines. The OECD has produced a wide range of instruments for guidance to regulators, but some of the key areas are cooperation, dialogue between all the stakeholders, and trying to make the offers more transparent.
Veridiana Alimonti from the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defence (IDEC) followed, speaking about her organisation's findings in campaigning on broadband in Brazil, and in coordinating Consumers International broader research on the topic for the Americas. Affirming what the previous panelists had said, the first matter she stressed was the lack of organised information about the conditions applicable to different plans and services. There was also a serious problem with Internet speeds, being over-promised and under-delivered. Compounding this, in Latin America, often only one provider offers broadband services in a region. To address some of the issues uncovered, the Brazilian telecommunications regulatory agency approved in October last year two broad regulations covering quality of service for fixed and mobile broadband. This would also require disclosure of mandatory parameters of connection speed, reliability and latency.
Meredith Whittaker from Google Research spoke as a participant in the Measurement Lab research consortium. Her work is directed towards ensuring there is open scientific, verifiable data to substantiate claims about problems with broadband performance - which could manifest with symptoms that could have many different potential causes. The problem is that the Internet is not a simple, easily measurable entity, but a broad global network with infinite dependencies that is incredibly dynamic. The Measurement Lab Research Consortium was founded by a group of researchers including Vint Cerf to address the challenge that good data on the way networks work was very hard to come by. This will assist consumers and regulators alike. The data is gathered using test servers around the world, and the data is released openly - which means that privacy is a key requirement built-in to the data gathering process. Meredith closed with visualisations of some of the data collected.
Premila Kumar of the Consumer Council of Fiji next spoke about consumer redress. The need for consumer protection in broadband services arises largely because of the imbalance in power as well as imbalance in technical knowledge which puts consumers in a very disadvantaged position. Also, the failure of broadband services can have a flow-on effect where not only the direct consumer is impacted, but also other consumer-facing service providers who use Internet services. The areas of complaint are fairly similar to other areas such as financial services - information not in simple language, important details hidden within small print, difficulty to compare rates, misleading advertisements, exit or termination fees, unfair contract terms, etc. Where broadband differs is that the speed and performance is harder to substantiate. This points to the need for intervention. She shared a case study where the Consumer Council achieved a victory against a Fijiian provider, utilising competition law, and closed with policy recommendations to improve information disclosure and redress.
Professor S C Sahasrabudhe representing the Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) from India explained how Quality of Service (QoS) is such an issue for the Internet. This is because of the design of the Internet, which is a global network with little central control, which now has billions of users and affects many peoples' livelihoods. Engineers have attempted to improve QoS of the network, but often assuming that people will play fair, which we know is not the case. The biggest problem is not measuring speed or quality, but communicating it to the consumer in a way that they can understand. A simple measurement that the consumer can access on their own machine would be a great step forward. Once they have this information, there is then the question, what can be done about it? Typically if there is a service level agreement (SLA), the consumer cannot understand it. A model SLA could improve this situation. So too could a standard format bill. Other issues flagged by the Professor were complaints and redress (with blame-shifting a common problem), and the fact that wireless broadband - upon which most reliance is placed in the developing world - is inherently less reliable than fixed broadband.