International body adopts e-commerce protections

In the midst of the holiday shopping season, a forum of 29 nations adopts guidelines they hope will provide broader protections for online consumers.

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In the midst of the holiday shopping season, a forum of 29 nations today adopted guidelines they hope will provide broader protections for online consumers, from settling complaints over faulty products to curbing e-commerce fraud.

The guidelines by the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), which includes the United States, are not legally binding but will be pushed forward by participating countries through partnerships with industry self-regulation groups or through legislation.

The plan is to extend offline consumer protections to the Net by calling on e-commerce stores to make accurate disclosures about products and shipping policies; to not sell consumers' personal information without permission; and to set up expedient dispute resolution systems for Net shoppers who are dissatisfied with their purchases or never receive them, for example.

"Consumers that are online should not be disadvantaged and get lesser protections," said Federal Trade Commissioner Mozelle Thompson, who led the U.S. delegation in the OECD deliberations. "[The guidelines] also say some important things about alternative dispute resolution to encourage quick, easy, cheap means for consumers to get disputes resolved online; we think it's pretty significant."

For now, U.S. consumers have limited choices if they want to complain about an e-commerce site. They can file complaints with the FTC, state attorneys general's offices or self-regulatory groups such as the Better Business Bureau Online. Those processes aren't as convenient as walking up to a brick-and-mortar store's return counter or asking to speak to the manager, however.

Although e-commerce is predicted to earn $6 billion during the holidays, only 10 percent of online buyers in the United States--an estimated 20 million--will pick out gifts on the Net because of poor customer service, erratic shipping practices and defective Web sites, according to Jupiter Communications.

The OECD's guidelines won't affect this season's Net sales. The organization's Consumer Policy Committee plans to follow up with recommendations on how to implement the guidelines.

Consumer advocates think the guidelines are a positive step for global online shoppers.

"We consider the guidelines to be a road map for how e-commerce should be conducted," said Susan Grant, president for public policy at the National Consumers League (NCL).

In the meantime, the NCL suggests that consumers only do business with Net stores that have a privacy policy that gives shoppers control over their sensitive information; that clearly post prices and warranties; that provide a physical address and other contact information; and that provide security for financial transactions. In addition, the NCL says that Net shoppers should double-check delivery dates.