Anyone who has ever bought something and had to return it, have practiced their right as a consumer. A consumer can be anyone, from the Prime Minister to a beggar at the street. A more clear understanding can be, a consumer is a person who, for oneself or the dependents, purchase, utilize, or achieve a permission to use any products or service by giving a price, prompt or due or in installments. Under Consumer Right Protection Act (CRPA) - 2009, a person who buys goods to earn a livelihood by ‘self-employment’ (though in a commercial scale) also falls within the definition of a consumer.
On March 15, 1962, US President John F Kennedy sent a special message to the US Congress. It was the first time ever a world leader had officially addressed the consumer right issues. Kennedy’s remarkable words provided the fuel to make the rights, of a consumer, more than just words on paper. It set the ball in motion for the rights to get implemented as well. A consumer rights activist, working for Consumer International at the time, later suggested, using that same date to observe ‘World Consumer Rights Day’. Consumer International is a membership organization that was founded on 1st April 1960. It now has more than 250 membership organizations all over the globe, working for empowerment and implementation of consumer rights. Their contribution in making consumer rights a serious discussion is also praiseworthy. On March 15, 1983, consumer organizations of Consumer International started to witness that day as an event to encourage the basic rights of a consumer. Since then every year, ‘World Consumer Rights Day’ has been celebrated on that day, highlighting new themes to ensure that the rights of a consumer is known and policies are modified according to consumer’s benefit. A different theme is introduced every year, to solve and be familiar with the issues that may arise for a consumer. But the question that comes in mind is, how can we celebrate a day like this? What can an ordinary citizen do? Well for starters, we can create awareness about the day and what comes with it. Guiding people and educating them about their rights, which they might not know. Introducing our own self with new policies or the changes made on the earlier ones also serves the purpose. Meetings and gatherings can be arranged within each community to discuss the problems and issues they face as a consumer. After discussing, application can be written to higher authorities and local elected officials, in order for them to find solutions to the issues.
Like each year, this year’s theme is also very interesting and much needed. The theme is “Trusted Smart Products.” Any device that can connect, share, and interact with its user and other devices, is a smart product. These are devices that have the ability to collect and analyze user data and transmit the data to other devices that are connected in a network. Networks of smart products are also called Internet of Things (IoT). Smart phones TVs, thermostats, gaming consoles are some of the most popular smart products. The use of smart products has been increasing on a regular basis, over the decade. According to surveys, globally 23.1 billion connected devices are currently installed. By 2025, this number is anticipated to triple. Another source reveals that as of today, there are 4 billion smartphones connected worldwide. This is double the amount which was on 2015 Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). And by 2025, mobile will be used by 72% users to acquire internet service. However in developing countries, the use of smart product is still a little slower. There are a number of barriers working on this, such as slower internet speeds, poor condition of supporting infrastructure, etc. Not everyone can afford the devices. Although several governments of different countries took initiatives like cutting import duties and thus making smart products cheaper for consumers, however the price of data packages still remain high. The issues regarding smart products are not only confined to developing countries but also the developed ones. Consumers International addressed some of the issues (in their ‘World Consumer Day 2019 Briefing’). When using any device that is part of a much bigger connected network and system, there is also a concern regarding security. Unsecured consumer devices are vulnerable targets when it comes to cyber-attack by hackers. A major cyber-attack over North America and Europe caused interruption of the whole internet service, in 2016. In 24 hours only, around 65,000 devices were infecting which included home Wi-Fi routers, baby monitors, unsecure printers, etc. A consumer’s safety may directly be at risk due to his or her unsecure smart devices.
Many of us may have noticed by now that whenever we download certain app or log in to some site, then they ask for access to our files, photo gallery and other personal information, like contact number or email address. These might risk privacy and protection of a consumer. According to a survey, 47% of smart device users are now highly concerned about identity theft. When devices are able to communicate and transfer data independently to other devices, then there is risk of losing data privacy and protection. Transparency is required when a consumer’s personal information is taken. The functionality of a device may be known, however there is lack of clarity of how the data is collected, used, or how it relates to the company’s business model. Connected devices need to be flexible in their features. Suppose, a device is bought and it only connects and operates effectively with other devices that are of the same brand or company; this limits the consumer’s choice and might affect their budget also. People would have to stick to just one brand and not get the maximum benefit. Smart products also need to have security updates. The lack of security updates makes cyber-attacks more likely to occur.
It is very obvious that smart devices still have a long way to go when it comes to satisfying certain expectations of a consumer. But improvement and modification is being done. The regulatory framework has been developed, particularly about privacy protection and security of smart products, in the European Union (EU) and United State (US). The strong support by the government has been seen around countries in Asia Pacific, where there is also growth in consumer demand. Some of the most noteworthy progress in Internet of Things governance and regulation has been done recently. Cutback in the prices of wireless connection is one of them. Internet of Things suggests that industries should have spectrum available on a non-discriminatory and ambitious level, which would decrease the cost of wireless connections. A spectrum allocation plan has already been developed by the National Telecommunication Agency (ANATEL), a special agency in Brazil. The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has now made the concept of privacy by design, their responsibility. This means privacy and data protection will be included in the device from its origination. For communication between devices, the EU privacy regulation is applied. In order to get information about connected devices, IoT providers must acquire permission from the end user. The Federal Trade Commission has expressed that in order to save IoT from unauthorized access; the providers must take some valid steps. This could include providers designing password specifications that are intricate and unusual. International Organization for Standardization (ISO) will allot advice on privacy by design frameworks for consumer goods and services.
The right of a consumer, today, is now being recognized more than ever. It has now become reasonable to protect these rights. Participants observe World Consumer Rights Day by promoting the basic rights of all consumers, and demanding that those rights are respected and protected. A day as such, reminds us that every consumer must have the chance to demand their rights and to protest against market abuses and social injustice which undermine those rights.
Professor Dr. Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder, Chairman, Department of Environmental Science, Stamford University Bangladesh