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February 15, 2007 10:06 pm

Concern at delay to online charter

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Germany has drafted an initiative that would considerably increase the rights of European consumers who buy products on the internet. It could force businesses ranging from banks to online music stores radically to review their offerings.

Yet the government’s decision to postpone the publication of its proposals, originally planned for this week, is fanning concern among consumer rights activists that Berlin may be having second thoughts.

Under the five principles enshrined in the “charter for consumer sovereignty in the digital world”, seen by the Financial Times, online music stores, such as Apple’s iTunes, would have to modify the copyright protection that currently prevents songs being played on competitors’ devices.

This would make Germany, Europe’s largest online market, the latest government after France and several Scandinavian countries to demand that Apple and other companies submit to the principle of “interoperability”.

Another controversial proposal would see banks and internet services providers bear the costs resulting from cases of password theft – known as “phishing” – and other forms of fraud unless they are using the latest and most sophisticated data protection technologies.

The proposals would also force online stores to obtain agreements from users before their personal data can be sold to third parties – instead of, as is the current practice, giving them the option to opt out of such schemes.

Although the charter is not a bill, it represents the government’s position on what European legislation should look like. By putting it on the agenda of its EU presidency, which ends in June, Berlin would send a clear message to Brussels that it sees the issue as a priority.

“The charter is ready and it has been approved by all the ministries involved,” said a consumer lobbyist involved in drafting the text. “But this is very controversial stuff and our concern is that some people in the government may be trying to quietly bury it or put it on the backburner.”

Although the charter has been ready for some time, Horst Seehofer, consumer protection minister, has twice postponed its presentation.

The ministry said the delay was merely technical.

Others suspect Mr Seehofer, now locked in a battle for the vacant chairmanship of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian arm of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, may be unwilling to associate himself with a highly controversial proposal at this sensitive time.

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