Towards the end of 2012 the European Commission published its Code of Online Rights as part of its Digital Agenda for Europe actions. The Code does not create new law but summarises the basic rights of EU citizens in terms of using the internet and purchasing goods or services online. The Code is derived from various pieces of EU law concerning e-commerce, electronic communications and data protection.

The Code is divided into three main sections: (1) rights and principles applicable when consumers access and use online services; (2) rights and principles applicable when consumers buy goods or services online; and (3) rights and principles protecting consumers in case of conflict.

A brief summary of these sections is provided below.

1. Access and use of online services

The Code provides:

  • All EU citizens must have the opportunity to access a minimum set of electronic communication services of good quality and at an affordable price.
  • Everyone in the EU should be able (and regulatory authorities in the electronic communications sector must promote their ability) to access and distribute any information and to run any application and service of their choice through electronic communication networks.
  • Consumers must not be refused access to services online or be given less favourable conditions on grounds of their Member State of residence unless this can be justified by objective criteria.
  • Every individual has the right to adequate protection of their personal data and the right to receive information from those holding their personal data. Processing of personal data by a third party must be necessary, fair, lawful and proportionate. In addition, individuals must be fully informed and consent to cookies being stored on their hard drive. They must also consent to receiving unsolicited commercial communications.

2. Buying goods or services online

The Code further provides:

  • Every consumer has the right to receive clear, correct and comprehensible key information from a trader about the product or service before making an online purchase.
  • Key information includes the main characteristics of the product, price inclusive of taxes, delivery costs, the arrangements for payment, delivery or performance, identity and geographical address of the trader and cancellation rights.
  • If a consumer places an order online they have the right to receive, without delay, acknowledgement of the order by electronic means and must receive the goods or services within 30 days of placing the order.
  • Contract terms must be fair. Consumers are protected from unfair standard contract terms that create an unreasonable imbalance to the detriment of the consumer. If there is any ambiguity in construing a term, the interpretation most favourable to the consumer will apply.
  • Consumers have at least 7 days to cancel a contract for goods or services purchased online. This “cooling-off” period is due to increase to 14 days in all Member States by 13 June 2014.

3. Disputes

Finally the Code explores an EU citizen’s rights when a dispute arises. Consumers will have the right to an effective remedy if their rights have been violated. They can sue or be sued in a court where the consumer is domiciled, if the online trader is commercially or professionally active in, or directs such activities towards, the Member State in which the consumer is domiciled.

Other consumer rights are set out in the Code, which is available on the EU website. It is a useful document that identifies relevant legislation throughout. Online businesses are encouraged to use this as a checklist to ensure they are complying with all applicable laws.