Social media firms given a month to fix consumer rights issues in Europe

Facebook, Twitter and Google are under more pressure in Europe to comply with regional rules. The latest issue they find themselves on the hook for relates to complaints pertaining to a variety of consumer rights that have been investigated by EU regulators since last year.

EU consumer authorities have been specifically looking into complaints about unfair terms and conditions, and looking for ways to tackle fraud and scams that mislead consumers when they are using the social networks — such as fake promotions to ‘win a smartphone for €1’ that also sign the user up to a hidden long term subscription for hundreds of euros.

Last November the three social media firms were sent letters by the EU regulators asking them to address the areas of concern. That was followed, earlier this month, by a meeting between the companies, regulators and the European Commission to discuss proposed solutions.

The companies have now been given a month to come up with fixes. If their proposals fail to pass muster they could face enforcement action in future, the EC said today.

Contacted for a response Facebook, Twitter and Google all declined to comment, saying they have nothing to share at this stage.

A variety of EU rules are involved in the matter, including the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, the E-commerce Directive, the Consumer Rights Directive or the unfair contract terms Directive.

The latter directive, for example, can invalidate standard terms & conditions if they create a significant imbalance in parties’ rights and obligations to the detriment of the consumer — meaning the terms would be judged unfair.

The Directive also requires that T&Cs be drafted in “plain and intelligible language” — to ensure consumers are informed in a clear and understandable manner about their rights.

Some of the specific things the EC emphasizes today that social media companies cannot do under EU consumer rules (suggesting the three are being accused of, at least, some of these failings) are:

  • Social media networks cannot deprive consumers of their right to go to court in their Member State of residence;
  • Social media networks cannot require consumers to waive mandatory rights, such as their right to withdraw from an online purchase;
  • Terms of services cannot limit or totally exclude the liability of social media networks in connection with the performance of the service;
  • Sponsored content cannot be hidden but should be identifiable as such;
  • Social media networks cannot unilaterally change terms and conditions without clearly informing consumers about the justification and without given them the possibility to cancel the contract, with adequate notice;
  • Terms of services cannot confer unlimited and discretionary power to social media operators on the removal of content;
  • Termination of a contract by the social media operator should be governed by clear rules and not decided unilaterally without a reason;

T&Cs are something we’ve long criticized as a horrible problem in the tech space. And while Facebook, Twitter and Google are clearly not the only companies in the industry that could be accused of muddying their terms with opaque language, swingeing vagueness and impenetrable layers of complexity, the huge and growing societal power of social media platforms — and these three giants specifically — is bringing them into contact with regulators’ spotlights, more and more.

Earlier this week, for example, Facebook and Twitter were criticized for continued failings to promptly remove hate speech from their platforms in Germany. The government there has now proposed a new law aimed at standardizing social media platforms’ content moderation processes to ensure compliance in future.

Meanwhile growing awareness of how algorithms that social media firms use to distribute content on their platforms can encourage and amplify the spread of ‘fake news’ continues to ruffle feathers — and is starting to land on political agendas.

In recent years social media giants have also come under increased pressure to do more to help government agencies in the region combat terrorism. With great power, it would seem, comes increasing societal and regulatory responsibilities for social media platforms.

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent open letter — which sought to reframe some of the societal divisions that have been demonstrably exacerbated by social networking as a need to further embed social networking structures into human societies to harness even more of people’s activity — is unlikely to be the last public pronouncement the Facebook CEO feels moved to make as social networking platforms and political discourse are wound ever tighter.