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The EU Consumer Rights Directive and Online Shopping

Published on October 21, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law, Internet Communication

Back in June, the EU Parliament passed something called the Consumer Rights Directive. This Directive has since been approved by a meeting of EU ministers and has now become law. Nations have got two years to comply with this new legislation – but what exactly is it?

As the name of it suggests, the Consumer Rights Directive is aimed at protecting consumer rights. It isn’t exclusive to online consumer activities, but this is one of the areas where it is set to have an impact. One of the main points of the directive is to stop websites from ‘pre-ticking’ boxes on online order forms, on the grounds that this can often lead to consumers signing up to things that they didn’t know they were signing up to. Web designers should take note, as there may be an obligation in the client-supplier relationship for the designer to give best advice on such matters.

One well-used example of this is company newsletters: you buy a product from an ecommerce website, but fail to notice the pre-ticked box agreeing to sign up to the online newsletter and future updates about the company and its products. Subsequently, you get inundated with advertising material you never wanted. Some pre-ticked boxes can even cost consumers money. The example given by the European Commission is the way the travel insurance box or an option for car rental will sometimes automatically be pre-ticked when customers are purchasing airline tickets.

Now all of this is going to have to stop, as pre-ticking boxes on order forms has been banned. Another aspect of the legislation is that it stops customers from being liable for charges they weren’t properly informed about when they made a purchase. They also get a fourteen day ‘cooling off’ period on purchases during which they can withdraw from their contract if they wish.

This isn’t the only thing the EU have done recently to try and protect consumers’ rights: the Privacy and Communications Directive does something similar in relation to internet advertising and online cookies, requiring users to give their consent before certain cookies can be used to stop sites from collecting so much information about them.

This brings us back to the eternal struggle between the rights of the consumer and the need for businesses to survive. It also brings us on to issues of implementation, something that is causing a bit of a headache in relation to the Privacy and Communications Directive, as countries have interpreted the legislation differently. But national interpretations and philosophical arguments aside, what does all of this mean for ecommerce websites? Will they be penalised by these recent EU directives?

On the one hand, you could argue that they are being penalised as the Privacy Directive makes collecting useful data more of a burden and the CRD stops them from taking action that may have bought in more business or helped them to get their message out to a larger number of people. However, protecting consumer rights is important and so these directives are largely positive. It also helps to make websites more honest as consumers will now have to specifically state whether or not they would like extra services rather than ending up with them regardless – something that the customers are sure to appreciate.

For example, in a recent press release, the EU details ten benefits of the new Consumer Rights Directive. The first of these benefits is that customers will be protected against ‘cost traps’ that trick them into paying for services online that ought to be free. Another benefit is that hidden charges and costs are not allowed, and consumers will have to confirm to say they understand the price they are being charged. This suggests that the only sites that will be losing out are those that probably shouldn’t be in business anyway.

Also, ecommerce is an area that is growing strongly, bucking the trend as many other areas of the economy continue to struggle. It doesn’t seem likely that these directives will stop this growth: after all, they strengthen the rights of the consumer, so if anything, they will help ecommerce even though online businesses might not like everything within the directives.

This is especially true in the UK. Figures from the IMRG tell us that the UK is the leading e-retail economy in Europe: if sales for 2011 stay on track, they’ll be worth €81billion by the end of the year.  Ecommerce is also growing at a rate of 18% per annum and more than 1 billion packages are shipped out across the UK as a result every year. It seems safe to say that a couple of Directives from the EU aren’t going to stop the online shopping juggernaut.

By Chelsey Evans

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Desktop PCs - the End of an Era?

Published on August 19, 2011
Tags: Internet Communication, Mobile Application Development

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that the personal computer made its revolutionary entrance in the world of technology. After all, it was only in 1981 that the first PC was launched. The computer in question was the IBM 5150 and, at the time, it was at the cutting edge of technology.

The PC managed to stay at the leading edge for some time afterwards and is still massively popular today. For instance, based on Microsoft’s sales of the Windows 7 software, sales figures for the second quarter of 2011 stood at around 75 million – an impressive figure.

However, when you look a little beneath the surface, it is possible to see that the strong sales figures aren’t quite as sturdy as they first seem. In the second quarter of 2010, PC sales figures stood at around 80 million, meaning that there was a significant decline between last year and this year.

It is possible to give several reasons for this. One is that the recent global recession and resulting stuttering recovery, coupled with higher inflation and less disposable incomes for the people who previously might have bought PCs, have led to people tightening their belts rather than splashing out new technology.

This, though, is not the only explanation. Changes have been occurring in the market for a few years now, as new innovations come through and people start to acquire new and innovative devices that fill the space the PC once used to occupy. For instance, millions of people now own smartphones that have internet access, as well as other internet-capable devices, such as laptops, games consoles and tablet computers.

The tablet computer is an interesting one, especially as it leads us onto one of the technology giants of the moment: Apple. It was recently reported that Apple has got more money than the US government and, when you look at how well their sales are going – as well as the growing breadth of products that they have on offer – it isn’t hard to see why they are doing well.

For instance, even while the PC market was down 17.5% in Europe at the start of 2011, the market for Apple Macs was up by 10%. In Asia, Mac sales were up by 69.4%. This happened largely because more businesses and governments, as well as home users, are starting to use Macs in place of the traditional PC.

Apple is also the dominant force in the tablet market. If you combine all of the Android tablets, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab, EEE Pad and the Motorla Xoom, the Apple iPad is still outselling them by a ratio of 24:1. This certainly suggests that things are starting to shift away from the traditional ‘big players’ in home computing and moving in Apple’s favour.

There are several things that can help to explain Apple’s increasing dominance of the computing market. One is that it has a fairly impressive brand image that means its product launches are guaranteed to attract a large amount of attention. Another reason is that it has many more developers at its disposal than most other companies, meaning that Apple users are much more likely to benefit from state of the art apps ad other developments. 

All of this shows that even though changes are clearly afoot, the world of personal computing is still massive – and growing. 400 million personal computers are expected to be sold in 2011. Growing markets in developing countries are contributing to this, as is increased take-up of internet use.

Naturally, this raises several challenges for web designers and computer programmers, among others. For example, an increasing array of devices means there is an increasing array of factors to take into account when working in web design or coding. While this is undoubtedly a challenge, it also arguably provides more scope for the innovation we have heard so much about over the past few years, with increasing diversity in the type of devices that people are using to access the internet even as certain firms (Apple, Google) remain dominant.

It also raises interesting questions for consumers – the people who buy these products and are gradually moving away from PCs in favour of laptops and tablet computers. In particular, it raises the question of cost versus value: Apple products, for instance, aren’t necessarily the cheapest to buy and in some cases other manufacturers might offer better products (depending on your view, of course) and yet it seems that expense isn’t as big an issue for people as you might expect.

With the market still evolving, it is hard to predict exactly what will become of the PC over the next few years, but it’s sure to be very interesting to watch. The impact of Windows 8, whenever it is released, might offer some indication of what’s going on – or at least Microsoft’s response to what’s going on – but for now it seems as though rather than simply sticking to the trust old PC, people are increasingly looking for diversity, innovation, image and quality in the products they buy. It doesn’t seem like that’s going to change any time soon.

By Chelsey Evans

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Internet Cookies and the EU Privacy and Communications Directive

Published on August 12, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law, Internet Security, Internet Communication

There has long been tension between the need to protect consumers’ privacy on the web and businesses’ desire to grow their online operations in any way they can. One of the things that have led to some of the most heated debates is internet cookies. There has been growing concern among some consumers, for instance, that they are effectively being stalked on the internet. This can be seen in the way a product you might have looked at on one website suddenly appears in adverts on subsequent websites that you visit.

This is the result of internet cookies and, while some cookies are relatively harmless and can in fact be useful (such as by remembering your preferences and log in details), some are not so welcome. As a result, the European Union introduced a new regulation called the Privacy and Communications Directive. The aim of the Directive was to put more guidance in place so that websites know how much information they can collect on their visitors without having to ask their permission.

The Directive is also sometimes known as the ‘cookie law’ and it was due to be implemented by governments by May 2011. At the time of writing, hardly any of them had done so. Only the governments of the UK, Denmark and Estonia had taken any steps to bring the Privacy and Communications Directive into law, and Denmark has since put its draft laws on the back burner.

In the UK, things are quite a bit better, with fairly comprehensive guidelines being given out – but firms still have a year to comply with the new ruling. This means that the ‘third party cookies’, which are thought to be causing a lot of the problems faced by consumers, can still often be found and tailored advertising online still abounds.

Here’s how it works. Say, for instance, that you look on a website for a new power tool. You don’t buy it, but the internet cookies register that you have looked at the product and were interested in it. You leave the website and spend some more time browsing, when you suddenly notice that something keeps happening: adverts for the power tool you were looking at earlier – and perhaps similar products - keep popping up on websites. The aim of businesses, of course, is to try and persuade you to click on one of those adverts and then make a purchase. The concern for web users, naturally, is the extent of the information companies are apparently able to collect on them.

This is what the EU Directive is supposed to help solve, by dividing internet cookies into two groups: those cookies that are ‘strictly necessary’ for services to operate and those that aren’t, which would require users to give their consent before they could be used. As you might expect, many people working in the European marketing industry do not like the Directive as it confuses what they are and aren’t allowed to do.

One thing that has caused confusion is over what the Directive actually requires websites and businesses to do: are they supposed to actively alert users whenever a cookie is placed on their machine, or is it enough to simply make them aware of their security options within their browser, thus leaving it up to the user to alter their security settings if they so wish? Part of this issue arises because the EU’s definition of ‘strictly necessary’ is very narrow, to the point where a cookie that remembers what language you typically view websites in would be likely to fall outside the ‘strictly necessary’ category.

This makes it harder to comply with the law. If you were to assume that the requirement of the directive was that notification had to be given of all cookies outside the ‘strictly necessary’ group, this could potentially lead to a high volume of pop up alerts asking for users to give their permission to continue. This leads to another problem: a lot of browsers block pop ups as a matter of course, and even if they don’t, the vast majority of web users loath them.

However, there is still the problem of users being concerned about their online privacy. There’s also the issue of how the Directive, if fully implemented, would affect businesses: many rely on cookies to work out the extent of their return on investments and believe that tailored advertising actually enhances the user experience. All of this means that companies are now faced with trying to explain to customers the value of using third party cookies.

Even more confusing is the fact that different EU governments are determining the Directive in different ways, so while some countries propose that web users should actively give their consent to individual cookies, others are much more general. Perhaps then, once thing is clear: while a stab at a coordinated effort has been made in order to reassure web users that their privacy is protected, more action and more coordination is still needed to make sure there is a workable policy and that it won’t harm ecommerce in the process. With 27 countries in the EU that all need to be working together, it seems as this could be one that’s set to continue for a good while yet.

By Chelsey Evans

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Google+ and the Internet Pseudonym Debate

Published on August 4, 2011
Tags: Internet Communication

You will no doubt be aware by now of the massive influence of social networking sites on the lives of millions of people: Facebook has somewhere in the region of half a billion users; Twitter has around 200 million; the recently-launched Google+ clocked up 20 million users in a little over three weeks.

This is clearly a big business and one that looks certain to stay around for a good long while yet, but there is a growing debate over the issue of names. More specifically, why do so many social networks insist that you register using your real name?

This issue was perhaps best highlighted by the recent news that Google+ has been closing down the accounts of people who registered under a pseudonym. Many people received an email from Google informing them that there account was being suspended because it didn’t comply with the network’s guidelines. The reasons given for this by Google were that in order to keep the social networks running efficiently, people need to be able to search for other people by their real names so that they can find and add them with minimal fuss.

This is similar to policies employed by other networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook; one of Facebook’s initial achievements was seen to be its success in getting people to use their real names when they signed up. All of this, however, has provoked an angry reaction among some users, especially those who have had their accounts suspended by Google+ for using fake names.

One reason for this disgruntlement is that a lot of people put a lot of effort into their online persona. Many people are well-known by the persona they have created for themselves, such as on forums and networking sites that don’t always require you to use your real name (such as Twitter). Some people suggest that this helps them to create more distinct boundaries between their ‘real’ and ‘online’ lives and it helps to separate what they do in real life from anything that happens online.

This, naturally, works well for some people and there are people who have made careers out of being something of a mystery online (case in point: the famous blogger Belle du Jour). One concern, however, is the belief among some researchers and other professionals that if people have fake identities to hide behind while they are online, they are more likely to be disruptive and cause trouble than if they were forced to register for sites using their real names.

Theoretically, this is because using your real name on social networking sites means that the things you write are more obviously attributable to you; in a world where increasing numbers of employers are investigating their potential employees’ internet presence before hiring them, it certainly makes sense to keep anything under your real name professional and entirely above board. Using a pseudonym, however, supposedly makes some people more likely to act up because they feel they have a barrier to hide behind.

Using an online moniker apparently makes some people feel fearless and liberated; as though they can say what they want. There is undoubtedly some truth in this – you only have to visit an online message board and scroll through the comment threads for a couple of minutes before you find evidence of what’s known as ‘trolling’ or nasty comments that people would never say in real life.

There is even a famous theory to explain this phenomenon of internet anger. It’s called Godwin’s Law, or Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies. Godwin’s law states that the longer an internet ‘debate’ goes on, the probability of a comparison being made involving the Nazis and/or Hitler approaches 1. That is to say, it becomes a 100% guarantee. The same could probably be said of many topics. After all, if a conversation thread goes on long enough it could conceivably touch on any topic imaginable.

But Godwin’s point certainly stands. Most people can probably either imagine or will have seen a situation just like this on internet message boards, most likely made by people hiding behind online personas, effectively censoring their identities while making comments that would generally be censored in ordinary life.

This isn’t a debate with a clear conclusion: there is an argument to be made for people using their real names on social networking sites. This can be linked to the old adage of ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to worry about’; if you aren’t planning to do anything suspect online, why should it bother you to use your real name? There is also, though, a good argument to be made for allowing people to use whatever pseudonym they want online. People have a right to privacy and the vast majority of people are perfectly innocent and just want to have a good time; why should a few internet trolls ruin that for the rest?

One thing seems certain and that is that the debate over whether Google+ was right to suspect accounts is going to continue. It also feeds in to the issue of how much information people should post online when it is so obviously easily accessible by so many people – including friends, family, employers, spammers and others. But that is a topic for another day. For now, it seems safe to say that social networks aren’t going anywhere any time soon, but neither is the tension over how separate we should keep our lives online from the lives we live in reality.

By Chelsey Evans

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Ofcom's Biannual Report on Broadband Speeds: The Internet is Getting Faster

Published on July 29, 2011
Tags: Usability, Web Design London, Internet Communication

A report from Ofcom has found that there are still major discrepancies between reported and actual broadband speeds in the UK. This is despite the fact that average broadband speeds in the country are now around 6.8Mbps per second; there are still huge local variations and some areas still don’t support the speeds of broadband that are frequently advertised by internet providers.

This is something we have written about before, but it is worth looking at again as it seems to be a problem that just won’t quite go away despite multiple actions being taken with the aim of dealing with the issue. The Ofcom report found that even though nearly half of people with broadband are paying for packages with speeds up to 10Mbps, very few of them actually achieve this.

This has led Ofcom to call for changes in the way internet service providers advertise their products. It’s not all bad news, however, as broadband speeds have increased by around 10% in the past six months. This suggests a growing consumer awareness of the need to shop around for the best deals and fastest speeds, as much of the improvement came from people switching to faster services.

One issue that is becoming more prominent, though, is that even while average broadband speeds are increasing – which is, of course, good news – there is a growing gap between speeds that are advertised and speeds that are actually achieved. Even though average speeds are only around 6.8Mbps, the average speed advertised by internet service providers is 15Mbps.

Something else that the report found was that many people have broadband services that claim to be ‘up to’ 24Mbps, while more than a third of them only receive 4Mbps. Also, Ofcom found that broadband offering speeds of more than 24Mbps, which counts as being superfast, was available to 57% of homes. Despite these services being available, not everyone is receiving those speeds as they’ve been advertised.

So, what are some of the factors that affect the speed of broadband?

  • The way broadband is delivered is one major reason many internet users don’t get the headline advertised speed; around 75% of broadband still relies on ADSL technology, which means that the speed you receive is influenced by the distance between your house and the telephone exchange.

  • The time of day when the service is being used can also have an impact; if you are trying to use your broadband at a time when many other people are also using it, it can drag down the speeds achieved.

  • The quality of wiring in your house plays a part, too; if the wiring in your house isn’t keeping up with advances in broadband technology it will make it much harder to achieve the speeds that have been advertised by the internet service provider.

This is an issue that affects us all and so it is definitely more important than simply a question of advertising. For instance, when web designers and developers are creating new websites, they will naturally want to make use of the latest technologies to provide the best possible user experience. However, if web users are struggling with slow to load broadband, websites that make use of such technology run the risk of not displaying properly or taking much longer to load than they would if customers were receiving ‘as advertised’ broad band speeds.

This is frustrating for everyone and so while it’s definitely encouraging that progress has been made over the past six months, the widening gap between advertised and actual speeds is certainly something that needs to be addressed.

ASA, the Advertising Standards Agency, is currently looking at the issue of broadband advertising and it is expected to report soon; it will be interesting to see what they have to say. Added to this, Ofcom have recommended that rather than a single speed being quoted, customers should be provided with a speed range so that they can get a more accurate picture of their likely broadband speed than they would if they were simply told the maximum speed available.

This is valuable, as it is naturally important that consumers are given a clear indication of the speeds they can expect from their internet service provider. Also, more awareness of the difference between ADSL (generally slower) and cable (generally faster) services will definitely be beneficial.

However, it is also tempting to suggest that as well as making alterations to the way speeds are advertised, if real, beneficial change is to be made in the world of broadband speeds, programmes to upgrade the networks and improve actual speeds should be given more priority. After all, advertising can only take you so far; eventually, you need a faster product to back it up.

By Chelsey Evans

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