Monique Goyens: Prices we are going to pay will depend on our profiles

While AI and algorithms are taking over more and more, we will end up being informed about things that somebody else has decided

Monique Goyens

The fundamental transformation that is taking place is very worrying for consumers. Because we are educated as consumers on the basis of our freedom of choice, relying on the information that you receive and the freedom of self-determination. We want to live the lives that we have decided to live. But we cannot really have access anymore to the information, we will be locked into a bubble where the algorithms have pushed us. This also means that we will end up not having consumer choice because we can only choose among certain things that are offered to us, says Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC.

- Mrs Goyens, a week ago the new EU consumer rules for software, streaming and game downloads, were agreed. How will the new directive protect buyers?

- Once it is finally adopted, we think it is a very good proposal, it is very good news for consumers. For the moment, if we buy software or games, we are not protected if those games or this software is not functioning well. Under the new law, if there is malfunction, you have the right either to end the contract, to have a repair or replacement. That's why we think this directive is really good news for consumers and we welcome it.

- The changes in technologies are very dynamic. What are the main challenges when it comes to shielding the consumers' rights in the digital era?

- The fundamental transformation that is taking place is very worrying for consumers. Because we are educated as consumers on the basis of our freedom of choice, relying on the information that you receive and the freedom of self-determination. We want to live the lives that we have decided to live. However, with digital disruption, because it is more than transformation, and certainly while artificial intelligence and algorithms are taking over more and more, we will end up being informed about the things that somebody else has decided to inform us. We cannot really have access anymore to the information, we will be locked into a bubble where the algorithms have pushed us. This also means that we will end up not having consumer choice because we can only choose among certain things that are offered to us. We don't have this right to determine ourselves, what we want to buy and what we want not to buy. Even the prices we are going to pay will depend on our profiles. It means than you and I will not pay the same price for that phone, for example, not because I am richer or not, but because somebody has decided that I am more prone to buy it than you would be, and I should pay a higher price. The whole concept of free markets and free consumer choice are going to be totally irrelevant anymore in the future. We need to reinvent the market where consumers can remain free and can remain relevant actors. We have to be much more active when it comes to privacy rights, but also something needs to be done so that the market power of the technological companies is kept under control.

- Concerning the dual quality products, do you agree with the MEPs who call this practice 'discriminatory' for the countries from Central and Eastern Europe?

- Insofar that a company engages in misleading consumers by not having the same quality for branded goods in one country with regard to the other country, this is of course something that is totally unacceptable and discriminatory. So we welcome the fact that this has been highlighted and that Europe has started to act. Now the important thing is to monitor markets, to see how often that takes place and whether companies that have been found in the past to engage in such dual quality practices have stopped doing that. However, I would like to draw your attention to what is another important element of dual quality that has never been mentioned by the politicians - what is the dual quality of access to healthcare. There is a huge discrimination between the western and eastern consumers when it comes to access to medicines, prices of medicines, access to generics, and access to healthcare in general. To have really a single and integrated EU, this is something that is much more important to be addressed by the Union, and by its Member States, than dual quality of breakfast cereals. It is about the quality of your life fundamentally. We have started to work on this right now, and we certainly go on trying to have solutions that are EU wide.

- In this respect, what is your opinion about the measures introduced in the Commission's “New Deal for Consumers” package?

- This a very important signal at the end of this legislature that consumers are important for the policy makers. Most of the provisions that have been introduced in the current consumer law framework are welcomed improvements towards the existing situation. The only negative point that we have concerning the Commission's proposal was the fact that the right of withdrawal that is given to the consumer who wants to return a good that has been bought on an e-commerce site was made much more complicated than it is currently the case. However, we expect the Parliament and the Council to reject that amendment. Another aspect of this new deal is of course the right for collective redress for consumer organisations, for which we have been asking for many years, and we believe that this is going through the legislator. The support from the European Parliament seems to be guaranteed, but we know in the Council it is much more difficult to get it.

- Are you satisfied with the new rules that will affect companies which do not abide by EU consumer law, backed overwhelmingly by IMCO MEPs on 22 January?

- We believe that there are many improvements that have been introduced with regard to the current situation. According to us, the fragility is in the enforcement of the rules. On paper the legislation, if it is going to be confirmed in the Council, is going to bring improvements to consumer rights, because there are sanctions for those that don't respect consumer law. We need now authorities to monitor that and we need a possibility for consumer organisations to go to court and to obtain not only fines and penalties, but also compensation for the consumers who have been victims of this. But fines really need to have a deterrent effect so the companies really feel the heat if there is illegal behaviour. Sometimes the fines are a few million euro, which for companies like Facebook and Google is nothing as they make this money in a few hours. The proposed maximum fine is about 4% of the turnover in the country, but we believe that it should be 4% of the turnover in Europe as a basis.

- A week ago, you have symbolically blown out candles on a cake denouncing the 10-year 'non-anniversary' of the 'nutrient profiles'. What does the lack of such a tool mean for the consumers?

- Normally if the food is unhealthy, it should not be allowed to claim that it is healthy. In order to know whether the product is unhealthy, meaning it has too much fat, too much sugar or too much salt, you need to set a 'nutrient profile'. It would say breakfast cereals that have more than “X” percent of sugar are unhealthy, or pizzas that have more than “X” percent of salt are not healthy. Currently these profiles have not been set. Moreover, until such profiles have been set, certain manufacturers can still claim that the product is healthy. For example, you have breakfast cereals. Many of them have too much sugar. But they can still claim it supports the growth of your children, although such sugar levels can cause obesity. Alternatively, if there is too much fat in the yoghurt, they can still say that it is boosting your immune system. So we believe that it is key. If you want this health claim regulation to be really meaningful, it is totally urgent for these 'nutrient profiles' to be defined by the Commission. It was its obligation, and for 10 years now they are not respecting their obligation under the regulation to set these profiles.

- Your organisation has serious concerns when it comes to the copyright reform as well. Why, according to you, can the consumers suffer collateral damage from an economic war between platforms and rightholders?

- We understand that rightholders should be protected when it comes to their creations, and one should of course fight against what we call “value extraction”, related to competitors or other companies that use the creation of somebody and make money out of it. However, we really think that consumers should be protected and they should have the right of what we call “user generated content” - if we have acquired legally the right to listen to music for example, because we have subscription, we can then also use that material to do private videos or private creations, based on it, without selling it. If they are selling it, they become also providers. So “user generated content” should have an exemption from the almost absolute right of the rightholders. We believe that they are exaggerating about the abuse or damage they could have because of consumers acting creatively with their content.

- As EU co-chair of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, how do you assess the Commission's draft negotiating mandates for the trade talks with the United States, adopted recently. And should we regret about the failure of TTIP?

- We should certainly not regret about the failure of TTIP, because that was not well designed and we are very pleased that it has been cancelled, because it was giving too much freedom for the US to intervene into our domestic sovereignty, to legislate meat food safety or chemical safety. What we see from the current EU draft mandate, we believe that it is quite light, because it is about tariffs, maybe conformity assessment. We are much more concerned about the mandate that is being prepared in the US, which is in fact a comeback of TTIP. Again, they want much more intervention into the legislative process in Europe and we shall never let that happen. However, I'm quite relaxed that nothing is going to happen so soon because the attitude of the US administration is so bullying that I cannot see any commissioner here, or even someone in the EP and the Council, give away anything to this administration. The tariffs are okay, that is trade. What we are concerned about is the regulatory aspect that we would be forced to accept products from the US which are not in line with our legislation.

- Ahead of the vote in May, BEUC has presented its five priorities for the EP elections. What are they about?

- These are top five priorities which concern issues that we want the next European Parliament to focus on. Now we are preparing a Manifesto with many more things that have to happen in the years to come. One of our top priorities is that products must be more durable. This means that a washing machine should not break down after five years, or if it breaks down, it has to be repairable and also there should be spare parts and the price for repair should not be too expensive. The smart phones should not break down after two years, they should last longer or they should be repairable. The second big priority that is quite new at this stage of interest for us is access to medicines. New medicines must be available, and at reasonable cost for the consumer. The third is that artificial intelligence must serve consumers, not harm them. The next priority is that the healthy food option must be the easy option. Attention should be given for example to labelling, you must have clear information and there should be not too much marketing of junk foods to kids. The fifth priority is about safe chemicals. The fact that we are more and more surrounded by chemicals is okay, as they are not all unsafe. But we really have to watch out for endocrine disruptors for example, and as we are moving into a circular economy, some chemicals that are perfectly fine in one product can be more dangerous in the recycled product. With these priorities we want to draw the attention of the new MEPs that this is something where they can politically make a difference and push the Commission to act.

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Monique Goyens is Director General of BEUC, a Brussels-based organisation that represents 43 independent national consumer associations in 32 European countries, ensuring that consumer interests are given weight in the development of EU policies. She is currently member of the EU High Level Forum for a Better Functioning Food Supply Chain and a delegate in the Consultative Commission on Industrial Change of the European Economic and Social Committee. She is an effective member of the Euro Retail Payments Board. Mrs Goyens is currently EU co-chair of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, a network of EU and US consumer organisations, and she represents BEUC at Consumers International.

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