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Highlights From the #DigitalHive Summit

Summit Day 1 – Tuesday 30 April

Day 1 of the official Digital Hive Summit had a packed agenda covering Internet of Things and consumer protections; Artificial Intelligence accessibility and fairness; new disrupters; and, the issue of true consumer choice.

Strong themes included:

  • Consumer protection needs to begin at the product design stage and reflect the whole of the supply chain, not just the point of purchase.
  • If data is not regulated responsibly, this will limit choice, freedom and result in consumers not wanting to share data and generating no economic value at all.
  • Consumer policy organisations require new capabilities that reflect the digital environment in which they are operating.
  • Civil society, government and business all need to work together to solve issues posed by digital disruption.
  • Research and evidence-based solutions are key to policymakers and regulators implementing effective solutions targeted to specific challenges including: transparency, genuine consumer choice, exploitation, inclusion and protection of fundamental rights.

How do we put consumers at the heart of digital innovation?

(Helena Laurent, Director General Consumers International; Bart Combee, President Consumers International; Ana Catarina Fonseca, Director General, Consumer Directorate-General of Portugal; and, Joao Torres, Secretary of State Consumer Protection Portugal Government)

The panel emphasised two main messages: Consumer organisations, business, and government need to work together, share experiences, and co-operate to promote consumer welfare in the digital environment. Consumer trust will be the necessary ingredient to economic growth and to meet social, economic and environmental challenges. Consumers International emphasised that IoT is not just smart fridges, but have the ability to support a more inclusive and sustainable world. For example, smart homes can support the elderly to stay independent in their homes for longer. Autonomous vehicles can reduce fuel use by 44%.

Consumers International noted that the consumer view needs to be represented from the start at the design stage and through the whole supply chain. Greater data about product supply chains can also give consumers greater control about their purchasing decisions. It will be necessary to bring consumer, digital and sustainable development goals together to shape the future.

What will consumer choice look like in the future digital economy?

(Phil Evans, UK Competition and Market Authority; Reinald Kruger, Vodafone; Marta Tellado, Consumer Reports; Toa Charm, Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School; and, Babatunde Irukera, Consumer Protection Council)

The panel discussed that the locus of consumer choice is moving and that a design shift is required to reflect and empower those who make choices.

Consumer Reports called for a broader definition of consumer rights – one which encompasses human rights and other social justice movements. Marta also commented that the lack of transparency and real choice for consumers requires consumer policy organisations to have new capabilities, including: a shift in the evaluation of products (to get involved at the design stage) and to understand consumer harm in the digital environment. Consumer choices needs to be understood not as an add-on but a fundamental right.

The Consumer Protection Council commented that consumers need to have more of a partnership role rather than being dragged along by technology.

For Consumer Reports, one of the main challenges for consumer groups is to have the capability to sit at the table, which requires a level of technology understanding, and direct change for consumer benefit. For consumers the future is now, with very few rights, standards or protections in many jurisdictions.

Keeping up with the pace of change – how regulators are responding to digital innovation (Carina Tornblom, European Commission; Bart Combee, Consumers International; Lucas del Villarreal, SERNAC; and, Taylor Bentley, Government of Canada) The EU Commission noted that the task was to become smarter regulators and policymakers. Part of this is collaborating with civil society and businesses, as there will be different lenses on the same issue and a lack of share understanding.

The Government of Canada echoed these sentiments with some direct advice from Taylor Bentleyon what being smart means for a policymaker: Start off admitting you don’t know everything; you have to be comfortable with change; smart policy must be based on the evidence and consider all mechanisms. Both regulators conceived of smart regulation as collaborative, evidence based, specific to the problem and open to change. This has important implications for the resourcing of civil society to engage with the shift in regulatory and policy approach.

SERNAC focused on the role of government agencies to better collect data in a systematic manner about the performance of companies, making rankings of better and worse performers available to consumers and the public.

The EU Commission also had a wide range of comments on the regulation of platforms, including :No one is exempted from regulatory frameworks and principle-based legislation, including platforms. Consumers are an important economic power and we should look to initiatives that enable us to negotiate as such. Much more investment in research is required to understand the market and the consequences of certain behaviours – especially with respect to dark patterns and unfair commercial practices developing online, both intentional and unintentional.

Disrupting choices 

(Georg Goeres, Indigo Agriculture; Gilly Wong, Hong Kong Consumer Council; Flora Coleman, Transferwise; Cedric Mussou, UFC-Que Choisir; and, Melchert Duijve, Aurum Europe BV)

This panel session looked at digital disruption and the impact on consumers in the finance, food and energy sectors. Digital disruption increases consumer power with the right information given at the right time but carries hidden problems, including biased, wrong or missing information and unclear consumer rights in terms of platforms, security, data. The example of the ‘ugly fruit’ project in Portugal to highlight benefits of digital disruption. This project has helped around 200 fruit producers sell their fruit that does not meet the visual standards of supermarkets on other online platforms. The panel discussed that only select information on special products (such as organic produce) was available, while general products do not provide useful information to consumers like antibiotic usage and pesticide residue. UFC-Que Choisir and Aurum Europe BV suggested that there was a role for consumer groups to be more disruptive in order to show businesses best practice in emerging sectors. The panel discussed that there needs to be more open and transparent dialogue across the supply chain, with an acknowledgement for example, that sustainable food will cost more.

AI: accessibility and fairness 

(Alan Kirkland, Choice; Colin Strong, IPSOS; Eve Andersson, Google AI; and, Marco Pierani, EuroConsumers)

The panel started with an introduction on AI and machine learning, with an acknowledgement that human bias is present at all stages of the process. The lessons from this acknowledgement are threefold:

  • There may be more than one answer
  • The dataset should be interrogated to ensure it reflect the diversity of the world
  • User feedback should be incorporated.
  • IPSOS commented that consumers often find AI empowering, but the unintended consequences are harder to spot. For example people will become focused on the means to the end (counting their daily steps) rather than their end goal (getting fit).
  • EuroConsumers stated that it was important to keep humans at the centre. Technology should be to expand humans’ freedoms, not control them. We should use our collective intelligence – business, civil society, government – to keep expanding our freedom of choice. There is a role for ethical frameworks, but also enforcement capabilities to ensure speed and capacity of response to harms.
  • EuroConsumers added that as machines will be making decisions for us in the futures, we should work to translate and transform our fundamental rights into code and machine learning.
  • Google commented that being inclusive means including people from the start – through qualitative testing and consumer research at the design stage.

Data reimagined 

(Ivo Mechels, EuroConsumers; Fabrizio de Liberali,; Niall Murphy, EVRYTHNG; Peter Lochbihler,; and, Paul Nagle, Alibaba Group)

  • EuroConsumers introduced the session with a powerful new video about our new digital world. Ivo Mechel powerfully stated that it’s not about the new data economy, data IS the new economy. If data is the currency of our economy, trust is its warranty. There is strong support for a data driven economy, but it must benefit all parties.
  • Massive amounts of data is provided by consumers – including likes, dislikes, behaviours, social ties, networks and contacts.
  • For data to be used as an input to this new economy, EuroConsumers identified three required conditions: All circulation should be authorised by consumers. Sensitive data must be excluded. Consumers must get fair value from what’s produced using their data.
  • EVRYTHNG commented that solutions can be found from past experience. Twenty years ago there was a crisis in IP with the advent of online content. The answer was in the shared concept of the collective commons. We need similar language for how consumer data can be understood. 400 pages of terms and conditions is not the answer. This can be achieved through a shared dialogue between business, government and civil society.

Privacy Warriors versus Privacy Police 

(Monique Goyens, BEUC; Pernille Tranberg, Data Ethics; and, Isabelle Buscke, vzbv)

The panel discussed different approaches to privacy protections, including pro-privacy services, and stronger regulation (such as making third party cookies illegal) and strong enforcement of regulation.

Most importantly, BEUC highlighted that the new explosion in discussion of ethical guidelines are only ever an addition to hard regulation and enforcement, they’re not a replacement.

  • The panel agreed that GDPR was a good development, with ethics to be enunciated on top of GDPR compliance.
  • BEUC highlighted the role of government and regulators responsible for developing and enforcing policy have a key role in procuring and using pro-privacy products and services – not just to foster innovation, but to protect sensitive information. There’s also a role in policymakers investing in new, ethical technology to make T&Cs more understandable.
  • The issue of how to treat the provision of free services in exchange for consumer data was discussed. More transparency, clearer terms and conditions are required in these contexts.
  • BEUC nominated the issue of paying for insurance partially through the provision of data as a key concern. Paying for insurance with data is problematic as it is the company deciding what is relevant. This is open to abuse from the company when it is unclear to the consumer what information is being used to determine the price.

Banking on the future 

(Caroline Normand, Which?, Frederica Pelzel, MasterCard, Maria Lucia Leitao, Central Bank of Portugal, and Alexandra Rizzo, Smart Campaign)

The panel discussed building an agenda for financial inclusions and identifying risks that consumer policy groups need to grapple with in this area. The Central Bank of Portugal commented that fintech brings undoubted benefits but also risks including security, privacy, exclusion and the speed of access exacerbating existing risks such as predatory lending. The panel discussed that avoiding exclusion was a tough issue for everyone and one that government, civil society, and financial literacy groups needed to work on together. Smart Campaign commented that those accessing digital finance were often already eligible for traditional finance, so exclusion was carried over from the physical to the digital world. MasterCard added that building in diversity at the design stage was a key lever in avoiding exclusion.

So much to absorb, and that’s just Summit Day 1! We can’t wait to see what the rest of the week brings.

Lauren and Brigid 


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