/ Technology

How can we bring consumer law into the digital age?

In this guest post for Which? Conversation, consumer affairs minister Norman Lamb explains why we need to bring consumer law into the 21st century, particularly when it comes to digital technology.

Did you know that if you buy software or a video game that doesn’t work properly you may not be legally entitled to get your money back?

If you buy faulty goods you can expect it to be put right through a repair, replacement or refund. So wouldn’t you expect the same for a service that wasn’t up to scratch? You might be surprised if you took a look at current consumer law in the UK.

Complicated law and small print leads many people to believe that you don’t have any rights at all. It can be difficult to know what you’re entitled to and hard to get a fair deal when things go wrong. Which? does vital work in helping consumers understand their rights and I am determined that government does all it can to ensure consumer rights are fit for purpose now and for the future.

Consumer Bill of Rights

I want to develop a single, comprehensive set of shoppers’ rights, which sets out in plain English, all the rights and remedies that consumers have. The intention is to drive up business standards and help you settle issues much more quickly and easily.

At the start of July we launched a consultation seeking your views on proposals to strengthen the law on goods, services, and digital content like music and e-books. Your input will form part of a new Consumer Bill of Rights. We‘ve published a short online version of the main consultation to make it easy for you to share your views because I really want to hear them.

So what could change under the proposals? We have a number of proposals but I’ll pick out a few.

30 days to return goods

When you buy something that doesn’t work you currently have a short period in which you can take it back for a full refund. However, the law doesn’t say how long that period is. We think it’s unfair that one retailer might argue this right runs out after a fortnight but another one would give you longer. We think this period should be 30 days, in line with what some retailers are currently offering, but do you agree?

Consumer law relating to sub-standard services is fairly weak, and we want to make the law on services closer to the goods regime. We want to know whether you think it would help if we clarify in law what you are entitled to if something does go wrong with your service.

Archaic consumer law

The changes also cover the digital industry, which has moved light years ahead in the past few decades. Now we have e-books, content streaming, cloud networks and apps. Current consumer law is archaic; it was written over 30 years ago and was not designed to deal with digital content.

One problem is faulty content; what do you do when your download is corrupted? It can be difficult to handle, which is why we’re asking whether you should be able to get your money back.

The changes to the digital regime will need to be much broader if we are to protect consumers from faulty digital content. That is why we’re looking at how the entire consumer rights framework applies to digital content, particularly if it’s supplied as a download or in the cloud. This will be a big change and it’s important to get your views on what sorts of rights and responsibilities should apply.

We want the Consumer Bill of Rights to be a big win for consumer empowerment, so we need you to tell us if our ideas will be of practical help.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Norman Lamb – consumer affairs minister – all opinions expressed here are their own, not necessarily those of Which?

JohnH says:
3 August 2012

There are many phone and tablet Apps that do not function as advertised. Many comments ask for a monetry return but, of course, none is offered. Even trying to contact some of the software developers is impossible as they don’t respond.
Apple especially needs to re-appriase their long winded Terms and Conditions. How many people read them through properly? I have tried, given up and returned later as the blurb is so long. There should be a system that shows clearly the main points at a glance.
Which? T & Cs are luckily not as big a read as some others!

The problem with the digital revolution is that every protection you give the consumer is also a crowbar that criminals (Especially those who don’t even regard what they are doing as crime) can use to rip off the supplier.

I have no solution to the conundrum, but I suspect that if you make things too easy on the consumer and/or criminal, a lot of what might be extremely popular media will never see the light of day.

I agree with this but think the length of time should be 60 days as not everyone is able to have time to sort something out there and then due to illness, work, etc – so I think things should be fairer for the consumer as businesses have had it too easy for too long. I recently had to take a company (Comfy-Living), to court to get a refund for a bed that broke after only 3 weeks but it took me until 30 days to work out how to contact them through Amazon, the site I’d bought it on. The company refused to refund me – which when it finally went to court, nearly a year later – it took that long! – the judge said they should never have made me take them to court and they were acting illegally under the sale of goods act to refuse me a refund – but it’s not clear on any website. The government needs to pass a further sale of goods act telling people they are entitled to a refund if they want one if something breaks or goes wrong. Currently there’s this stupid “repair, replacement or refund” so companies aren’t giving the refund – that needs changing as there are so many bad companies out there.

Michael Prust says:
16 August 2012

One way to overcome some of the difficulties experienced when buying digital products is for the vendor to be forced to publish a formal procedure called “what to do in the event of a problem” this will at least enable contact to be made swiftly. In most case the solution to a download problem can easily be fixed by a “replacement”. If a replacement is refused it points to a somewhat “iffy” vendor who should be prosecuted. Making it easy to prosecute would stop most of the problems anyway as these vendors rely on inertia and the hassle to actually accomplish a prosecution.

Mike Servini says:
16 August 2012

The only time I’ve returned software was when using Amazon to buy the image editing software “Lightroom”, it would not load- Once informed Amazon made the return and refund immediately,fantastic service (wish I could say the same of the Yodel pickup service)
Moral- for me, stick to Amazon

Michael Marsh says:
16 August 2012

I purchased a ‘new up-to-date’ map of Western Europe for my Tom Tom satnav before travelling in France. While driving on a main road that I had used two years previously, the satnav showed me in the middle of featureless countryside (no road present). Many other examples of the map being long out of date occurred. Tom Tom insisted that it was the most recent mapping. We need accurate descriptions of what we are paying for with this kind of software.

Wyndham Jones says:
16 August 2012

For about two months, everyone in my area has suffered from extremly low Broadband speeds and telephone [landline] problems. Several days, I would be without internet connection at all and also the telephone was so bad I had to continue some conversations by mobile phone. I contacted Sky, my ISP, who virtually said the fault was mine, had me checking telephone sockets and trying a borrowed phone. They eventually agreed that the fault was external but this didn’t stop subsequent Sky operators trying to put me through the same loop to check the sockets and lines when I kept complaining
Eventually I found out that the fault was caused by Openreach and their cables by contacting my local MP and a Welsh Assembly Member, even though I told Sky where the trouble lay, the seemed to ignore it.
I am sure that I and others should be entitled to compensation for “denial of services” from Sky, they take my money. I have asked Sky for compensation but I am not holding my breath until I get a response from them.

June Beddows says:
16 August 2012

A big problem in defining this legislation is the fact that a great many of the customers do not take the time to identify what they are buying and exactly what it does and how, indeed many do not know where to start. Many choose their packages on reputation, appearance or price rather than on whether it can and do the tasks they need it to do. How many actually know what they want it to do before they buy it? This lack of know how and education is one of the major reasons why the problem still exists, have you ever tried to find out how non-experts can learn about such matters? There are few, if any places to go and learn this type of thing.

It is likely to prove very difficult to document and agree how a software product is intended to work and whether the real problem is that it doesn’t do what it should, or doesn’t do what the customer thought it would do.
(from a very experienced supporter of people choosing and using software solutions since 1977!)

In my experience, the Sale of Goods Act does not provide the protection that consumers need. Here are some examples of the problems:

1. Retailers never mention the SOGA and, in my experience, shop assistants are often ignorant of it or will deny that it applies to whatever is under discussion.

2. Retailers often tell consumers to contact the manufacturer, despite the fact that it is their responsibility to deal with faulty goods.

3. Shops can be difficult to deal with but online traders present greater problems.

4. It is very difficult or expensive to get a report that a fault existed at the time of manufacture. I suspect that very few people even try to get an expert opinion.

5. The fault may not have existed at the time of manufacture and the failure is due to poor quality components or a design fault. As an example of this, it is common for certain flat-screen TVs to develop bands or shadows on the screen due to overheating of the screen. This is as a result of the screen being in an ultra-thin case with insufficient ventilation for cooling. The most reasonable argument is that the TV is not fit for its purpose but once again an expert opinion is needed. Many reports of this problem have been posted on websites but retailers and manufacturers rarely admit that a design fault exists, even if those who handle repairs may be aware of the problem.

The result of our impractical and unhelpful legislation is that consumers frequently replace faulty goods well before they have made reasonable use of the product. This results in a huge waste of items that will – at best – be recycled and mountains of electrical/electronic waste.

The simplest solution could be to push for manufacturers to provide extended parts & labour warranties, for example 10 years for a washing machine, and 5 years for a computer or other product likely to become obsolete more quickly. Since manufacturers will not wish to incur repair costs, extended warranties at their expense will encouraged better design and build quality.

Car dealers and manufacturers provide an example of where we should be heading, since some models come with extended guarantees and it is common for customers to receive repairs free of charge or goodwill payments even if the warranty has expired.

Retailers and manufacturers deserve protection too, so that a washing machine in frequent use by a large family does not deserve as long a warranty, in the same way that a car may reach the maximum number of miles before the expiry date. It is simple and inexpensive matter for a manufacturer to include an inexpensive tamper-proof meter to record the total operating time of any electrical equipment.

Sag111 says:
24 July 2013

“The fault may not have existed at the time of manufacture and the failure is due to poor quality components or a design fault. As an example of this, it is common for certain flat-screen TVs to develop bands or shadows on the screen due to overheating of the screen. This is as a result of the screen being in an ultra-thin case with insufficient ventilation for cooling. The most reasonable argument is that the TV is not fit for its purpose but once again an expert opinion is needed. Many reports of this problem have been posted on websites but retailers and manufacturers rarely admit that a design fault exists”

Isn’t this something Trading Standards, the Small Claims Court or the Advertising Standards Authority could deal with?

With ASA, the advertising code says you have to include stuff that people would want to know to make an informed choice on buying. A design fault is definitely one, and it shouldn’t be left out of adverts.

kev999 says:
8 October 2012

This needs to be addressed urgently. It is blatently unfair that if I buy a download of software for my ipad from the Apple App Store and it proves to be full of bugs and unusable, that I have no redress. I believe Apple operate with unfair contract terms in so far as it appears you give them money and they have no obligation to give you a product that actually works. They have a strict policy of NO REFUNDS under any circumstances however hard you try to get one. No wonder they are the richest company in the world…..

McKenzie87 says:
20 October 2012


I’m having problems with Digital games downloads. Or ones that the game does not work but the supplier says that once the key has been activated they can no longer refund you, leaving you with a game that does not work. Even if your pc can handle the game. Trust me when i say, mines can. It is unfair that they can wash their hands of it and your left going from the game creator to the supplier and then bk to the creator saying the same thing. Can the law be extended to this bit of the digital download law.

I am having issues with an online game that I play they are stopping us from reporting issues unless we are premium members they have been told time and time again about cheaters who play and spoil it for legitimate players the amount of lag in the game stopping you from enjoying it and glitches in game where you get moved from where you are to some where else or your platoons don’t repair or go missing as an online game player who enjoys the game does the company have a right to make the game fit for use before making players pay a premium rate and if so what regulation will cover this thanks

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