Facebook, Twitter, Google warned over EU consumer rights

U.S. social media giants have been warned by Europe’s consumer rights commissioner that she’s  running out of patience with their failure to comply with the region’s consumer protection standards.

“I am becoming very impatient,” said commissioner Věra Jourová, speaking at a press briefing today in Brussels. “In our opinion there are in the terms and conditions of these American companies several very unfavorable conditions for the EU consumer. And if they want to make big business using the benefit of operating in the European market they have to be compliant with the EU consumer protection standards and rules.”

EU regulators have been investigating complaints about unfair terms and conditions pertaining to platforms operated by Facebook, Twitter and Google since last year.

In March the Commission and national consumer protection authorities gave the three tech giants a month to fix the problems they had identified — which included issues such as depriving consumers of their right to take a company to court in their own country; and requiring consumers waive mandatory rights, such as their right to withdraw from an online purchase.

Late yesterday, Reuters reported that regulatory pressure is now being cranked up on the three, after the proposals they have submitted so far have not been considered sufficient to bring them into compliance. The Commission requested amended proposals be submitted by July 20, and implemented by the end of September.

Today, Jourová said the September deadline will be the last chance for the companies to satisfy EU regulators — or face enforcement action from Member States’ consumer protection authorities. This could include fines.

“We received two answers out of three — one company asked for more time for the response,” noted Jourová today. “What we want them to do is to make their terms and conditions to be in full compliance with the high European standards of consumer protection. That’s why we asked them for concrete proposals, we set a deadline, and we will wait for the last answer and we will assess and analyze whether this is sufficient for us.”

“In case this dialogue does not work we will have to help the national enforcers to launch the co-ordinated action,” she added.

A Facebook spokesperson told us it believes it does already comply with EU law though also recognizes the need to improve its T&Cs to make them easier to understand, adding that it is working to assuage regulators’ concerns.

A Twitter spokesman declined to comment, saying the company has nothing to share at this stage.

At the time of writing Google had not responded to a request for comment.

Giving an example of one of the conditions that EU regulators are taking issue with, Jourová said: “I think we can all agree that it’s not acceptable to ask consumers to go to court in California if they have a problem.” (According to Reuters this is one of the sticking points in the dialogue thus far.)

“Also companies have limited their own liability towards consumers in a way unacceptable under the EU law,” she continued. “And in the future they also need to better protect consumers from illegal commercial practices of traders using their platforms.”

“We are intensively working on making the consumers safer when purchasing from the platforms,” she added. “We want to make sure that everybody understands that what applies offline it also has to apply for online.”

Jourová also said the EC is also looking closely at the shopping experience for consumers on tech platforms — as part of a retesting review it’s undertaking to ensure current consumer protection legislation is up to date with digital developments.

“We need to make sure that when you go to buy something from online platform you know exactly who you buy from — who is the other side of the contract. So we will be looking into the possibility of introducing more transparency for online shopping,” she added.

This story was updated to include responses to requests for comment from Facebook and Twitter