No obligation to provide consumer telephone lines: Amazon
In the proceedings brought by the German federation of consumer associations against Amazon, the Advocate General found that a trader does not have to provide a telephone number as long as the consumer can contact the trader quickly, the information provided is clear and accessible and communication can happen effectively.
The German federation of consumer associations, the Bundesverband der Verbraucherzentralen, issued proceedings in Germany seeking a declaration that Amazon infringed German law which implemented the EU Consumer Rights Directive. Article 6(1)(c) the Directive, requires traders to indicate in a clear and comprehensible manner “the geographical address at which the trader is established and the trader’s telephone number, fax number and email address, where available, to enable the consumer to contact the trader quickly and communicate with him effectively”.
Amazon offers an automated call-back facility and an online chat service, but the Bundesverband argued that these were not sufficient to discharge Amazon’s legal obligations under the Directive.
According to Advocate General Pitruzzella’s opinion, the aim of the Consumer Rights Directive is to increase the level of protection afforded to consumers, as well as increase businesses’ competitiveness in the marketplace. The relevant provisions of the Directive therefore have to be interpreted in such a way as to ensure the highest possible level of consumer protection without impinging on the organisational freedom of businesses, except to the extent strictly necessary for achieving the high level of protection for consumers.
Effective consumer protection is, according to the Advocate General, achieved through ensuring that consumers have the capability to communicate with the business effectively in the environment in which the transaction is carried out, which potentially includes online chat or call-back facilities. The Advocate General added that imposing a specific method of communication between the parties would be disproportionate to the objectives of consumer protection and liable to impose undue burdens on traders, and be particularly harmful for small undertakings trading on the Internet.
So long as the consumer is able to “…contact the trader quickly and communicate with him efficiently, and the fact that the information is provided in a clear and comprehensible manner”, their obligations under the Directive are fulfilled. The Advocate General added that the list of communication methods provided by the provision is simply an illustrative one, and the phrase “where available” in the provision does not create an obligation on businesses to set up a telephone or fax number if they decide to enter into distance contracts.
Finally, the customer has to clearly understand what communication methods are available to them in the event that they would need to contact the business. The Advocate General also set out that the information has to be “easily, effectively and relatively quickly accessible by the consumer” to fall in line with the Directive.
Why is this important?
Platforms and retailers alike are hopeful that the Court of Justice of the European Union will confirm the Advocate General’s opinion later this year. This would provide a much more flexible approach to the provision of communication avenues for consumers.
Any practical tips?
Keep your fingers crossed that the European Court of Justice follows the logic of the Advocate General. This approach enables a far more flexible approach to communications with consumers, and one which should enable platforms and retailers to adapt to new communication methods as they evolve.