CJEU confirms that e-commerce platforms need not make a telephone number available to consumers
Bundesverband der Verbraucherzentralen und Verbraucherverbände — Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband eV v Amazon EU Sàrl, Case C 649/17The question
Are online traders required to provide a contact telephone number for consumers?
The key takeaway
Provided that online traders make consumers aware of alternative means of communication, such as automated call back or online chat-services, in a clear and comprehensible manner, they are not obliged to offer a contact telephone number.
The German Federal Union of Consumer Organisations and Associations sought a declaration from the German courts that Amazon.de (Amazon) had fallen foul of its legal obligation under German law to provide a telephone number to its consumers. Instead Amazon gave its consumers, through a serious of webpage links, the option to request a call back, send an email or use an online chat service.
Following the opinion of Advocate General Pitruzzella in February 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) were tasked with providing guidance on whether the Consumer Rights Directive (the Directive) - which provides that “traders shall provide the consumer with … in a clear and comprehensible manner ... the trader’s telephone number, fax and email address, where available, to enable the consumer to contact the trader quickly and communicate with him effectively” (Article 6.1(c)) - requires e-commerce traders to establish a telephone number or email address to allow consumers to contact them or whether other means of communication such as those implemented by Amazon would be sufficient to discharge a trader's obligations.
The CJEU found that the Directive prohibits national legislation from imposing an obligation on traders to provide, in all circumstances, their telephone number. The CJEU also confirmed that the Directive does not require e-commerce traders to establish a telephone number or email address, however, where these means of communication are already available for use by consumers they should be communicated to consumers unless the trader has in place alternative means of direct and efficient communication such as a call back or online chat service.
Confirming the opinion of Advocate General Pitruzzella consumer protection must be balanced against the freedom to conduct business and therefore it would be disproportionate to place an unconditional obligation on traders to provide a telephone or fax number to consumers in all circumstances. To the contrary, the CJEU was clear that alternative means of communication would be satisfactory as long as they are communicated to the consumer in a clear and comprehensive manner and provide direct, quick and efficient means of communication. The CJEU also suggested that the fact that the consumer is required to click through a series of links is not necessarily indicative that the information is not clear or comprehensible unless navigation of the links is so complex that it makes it difficult to access the information.
Why is this important?
This will undoubtedly be a welcome decision for many online and off-premises traders as it provides more flexibility in terms of the means that can be used to communicate with consumers.
Any practical tips?
Online traders can continue to explore and take advantage of innovative and cost-efficient ways to communicate with customers such as online chat services, automated call-back services and enquiry templates. However, they must ensure that the chosen means of communication are made clear and accessible to consumers.