European lawmakers are pressing major e-commerce and media platforms to share more data with each other as a tool to fight rogue traders who are targeting consumers with coronavirus scams.
After the pandemic spread to the West, internet platforms were flooded with local ads for PPE of unknown and/or dubious quality and other dubious coronavirus offers -- even after some of the firms banned such advertising.
The concern here is not only consumers being ripped off but the real risk of harm if people buy a product that does not offer the protection claimed against exposure to the virus or even get sold a bogus coronavirus "cure" when none in fact exists.
In a statement today, Didier Reynders, the EU commissioner for justice, said: “We know from our earlier experience that fraudsters see this pandemic as an opportunity to trick European consumers. We also know that working with the major online platforms is vital to protect consumers from their illegal practices. Today I encouraged the platforms to join forces and engage in a peer-to-peer exchange to further strengthen their response. We need to be even more agile during the second wave currently hitting Europe.”
The Commission said Reynders met with 11 online platforms today -- including Amazon, Alibaba/AliExpress, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft/Bing, Rakuten and (TechCrunch's parent entity) Verizon Media/Yahoo -- to discuss new trends and business practices linked to the pandemic and push the tech companies to do more to head off a new wave of COVID-19 scams.
In March this year EU Member States' consumer protection authorities adopted a common position on the issue. The Commission and a pan-EU network of consumer protection enforcers has been in regular contact with the 11 platforms since then to push for a coordinated response to the threat posed by coronavirus scams.
The Commission claims the action has resulted in the platforms reporting the removal of "hundreds of millions" of illegal offers and ads. It also says they have confirmed what it describes as "a steady decline" in new coronavirus-related listings, without offering more detailed data.
In Europe, tighter regulations over what e-commerce platforms sell are coming down the pipe.
Next month regional lawmakers are set to unveil a package of legislation that will propose updates to existing e-commerce rules and aim to increase their legal responsibilities, including around illegal content and dangerous products.
In a speech last week, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager, who heads up the bloc's digital policy, said the Digital Services Act (DSA) will require platforms to take more responsibility for dealing with illegal content and dangerous products, including by standardizing processes for reporting illegal content and dealing with reports and complaints related to content.
A second legislative package that's also due next month -- the Digital Markets Act -- will introduce additional rules for a sub-set of platforms considered to hold a dominant market position. This could include requirements that they make data available to rivals, with the aim of fostering competition in digital markets.
MEPs have also pushed for a "know your business customer" principle to be included in the DSA.
Simultaneously, the Commission has been pressing for social media platforms to open up about what it described in June as a coronavirus "infodemic" -- in a bid to crack down on COVID-19-related disinformation.
Today the Commission gave an update on actions taken in the month of September by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and TikTok to combat coronavirus disinformation -- publishing its third set of monitoring reports. Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market, said more needs to be done there too.
"Viral spreading of disinformation related to the pandemic puts our citizens’ health and safety at risk. We need even stronger collaboration with online platforms in the coming weeks to fight disinformation effectively," he said in a statement.
The platforms are signatories of the EU's (non-legally binding) Code of Practice on disinformation.
Legally binding transparency rules for platforms on tackling content such as illegal hate speech look set to be part of the DSA package. Though it remains to be seen how the fuzzier issue of "harmful content" (such as disinformation attached to a public health crisis) will be tackled.
A European Democracy Action Plan to address the disinformation issue is also slated before the end of the year.
In a pointed remark accompanying the Commission's latest monitoring reports today, Vera Jourová, VP for values and transparency, said: "Platforms must step up their efforts to become more transparent and accountable. We need a better framework to help them do the right thing.”