Digital consumer rights
Digital consumer rights
Sean Whelan, Europe Correspondent, reports that the plea for digital consumer rights is pretty much Jim Murray's last act after 17 years as director of the European Consumer Organisation.
'Do we have to accept that when we take the shrink wrap off a piece of software we are automatically deemed to have accepted a contract?' Jim Murray is winding up for an attack on one of his favourite targets - the suppliers of digital goods and services such as software companies, the music industry and Hollywood.
'Everybody is telling consumers you can't do this, and you can't do that - this is piracy, that is a crime. But nobody is saying what consumers may do. What are our rights? If my son gets a digital textbook, is he allowed to pass it on to his younger brother like a printed text?'
It is not that he or the European consumer groups he has represented condone counterfeiting or digital piracy. What bothers him is that the industry seems to make no distinction between people copying a CD and industrial scale music pirates.
'This is bad business and its bad law. Bad business because it's alienating 15 to 35 year olds who are the present and future consumers and who feel and have no reason to feel any sense of loyalty to the industry. And it's bad law because they are trying to criminalise people without making any distinctions. We told MEPs you are passing laws that will criminalise your sons and daughters'.
The plea for digital consumer rights is pretty much Jim Murray's last act after 17 years as director of BEUC (www.beuc.org the European Consumer Organisation). It is basically a lobby office based in Brussels to work the system on behalf of national organisations like the Consumers' Organisation of Ireland.
Prior to moving to Brussels, Jim Murray was Ireland's director of Consumer Affairs and Fair Trade, a public service position tasked with implementing consumer protection law.
Back in 1990, when he arrived in Brussels, the internet was confined to university computer departments, and nobody knew how to copy a CD. Back then, the big issue was food safety, as the BSE crisis was in full swing. Back then consumer protection issues like labelling food so consumers know what they are eating and where it comes from were in the hands of the industry commissioner or the agriculture commissioner.
Now that is changed and he gives much of the credit to former Irish Commissioner for Health & Consumer Affairs David Byrne, who between 1999 and 2004 put in place a raft of consumer legislation and established bodies like the European Food Safety Authority, putting consumer protection on a more independent footing.
But while the Irish have been proactive in consumer affairs at European level, Jim Murray is less complimentary of the Irish back home.
'Almost all Irish consumer protection legislation comes from Europe', he says. 'And while I would like to be able to say that Ireland has gone further than the EU laws, it hasn't. It's not that it's particularly bad, but the record is simply one of implementing EU legislation'.
He has no doubt that EU laws have strengthened the rights of Irish consumers. 'One example was the 1978 Irish law on misleading advertising. It didn't apply to banks, because they had negotiated an exemption for themselves. When the European law came in there were no exemptions for banks or anyone else'.
He believes that Ireland's big food industry would have negotiated similar sweetheart deals on food labelling, and that the political system would not have been able to resist. European food safety laws were less amenable to industrial lobbying.
Not that Brussels is immune from lobbying - far from it.
As a lobbyist himself, Jim Murray is well positioned to know. 'There are between 15,000 and 20,000 lobbyists in Brussels. It's second only to Washington DC. It's a reflection of the size of the European market, and the fact that European standards often become the global standard'.
That has led to an influx of US lobbying companies, and some of them have imported the less savoury aspects of their trade. In some areas there was a lot of evidence that lobbyists, mainly US based, did not want to engage in argument or debate, but instead concentrated their energies on trying to cut off the funding we get from the European Commission (BEUC, like a number of other NGOs, gets Commission grants as part of a programme to include diverse viewpoints in policy formation).
'There was another organisation called Consumers for Health Choice. There were many sincere people in it but it was basically a front for the US food supplements industry, set up and financed by them to fight the regulation of food supplements in Europe', something BEUC had campaigned for.
He says there is a growing trend towards industries sponsoring 'institutes that sound independent', but which never say or do anything their sponsors disapprove of.
That is why he fully supports the current effort to bring more transparency into the Brussels lobbying scene: 'We need to know who is funding lobbyists, and what they are lobbying for'.
As for counterfeiters, digital or physical, Jim Murray repeats he is not on their side.
'Counterfeit batteries for laptops or MP3 players can be really dangerous because they can go on fire. The fake ones lack the security features of genuine products. Fake car parts can also be very dangerous, and fake medicines, whilst not a big problem in yet in Europe, can kill'.