Putting the EU Consumer Rights Directive in focus

The sun has been shining outside. I have been inside adjusting ecommerce templates to comply with a new EU law governing the legality of online transactions. Fortunately a new book explaining the law has made it possible to get out and enjoy rather more of the sunshine than I would have otherwise.

The Consumer Rights Directive came into effect on 13 June 2014, and applies to all sellers of goods, services or digital products, online and offline. It is designed to clarify the information that must be provided to consumers before, during and after a transaction, and so render the process of exchange more transparent for both buyer and seller.

The Directive, which the UK Government has implemented as the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013, requires that ecommerce systems make clear to customers their statutory rights throughout the purchase process. The law opens transactions carried out through a noncompliant website to legal challenge: the consumer is not bound by the contract, and can keep the goods and their money.

So it has significant implications for web designers who have implemented any kind of ecommerce system for a client. Systems that do not meet the Directive's requirements are now effectively illegal: all transactions that pass through them can be rendered void.

All of which makes it rather surprising that there has been so little publicity about the Directive. Certainly much less than there was a couple of years ago when the Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive - the celebrated cookie law - careered into the light. Unlike the cookie law, under which nobody has been prosecuted, the Consumer Rights Directive has teeth, and can do serious damage to designers and businesses who ignore it.

The official guidelines to implementing the Directive are specified in the forbidding legal terms that one might fear and expect. There are some useful articles scattered around the web which seek to set out what needs to be done in plainer terms, but it takes time to track them down and assemble them into a coherent narrative.

So I'm glad that a web designer colleague, Heather Burns, has taken the time to write a short book setting out exactly what the Directive requires, how it should be implemented, and what the implications are if it is not. The Web Designer's Guide to the Consumer Rights Directive, available for immediate download for £12, discusses each of the Directive's requirements, including:

  • the clear product and pricing information prospective customers need to see before checking out;
  • the information that must be provided on subscriptions and recurring payments;
  • the acceptable phrases for checkout buttons;
  • the content and wording suitable for the comprehensive cancellations and returns statement required by the Directive;
  • the elimination of the widespread practice of placing unwanted items into shopping carts;
  • the provision of clear information about the purchase on consumer receipts;
  • the importance of providing a basic rate customer service phone number.

As Heather makes clear, implementation of the Directive's requirements takes a bit of time:

Your job as a web site designer or site administrator is to implement the changes required by the Directive. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts here - you will need to put in a few hours of work on each client site. The good news is that these changes are actually quite simple. You do not need to rip up anything - not your site, not your e-commerce, and not your apps - and rebuild them all from scratch.

I have used the book to make the necessary changes to a number of client sites with some kind of ecommerce facility. It took around four or five hours - on a particularly warm day - to make the changes to the first site, but considerably less time to apply the same adjustments to the others: once you know what to do it's quite straightforward to replicate the changes from site to site.

And I didn't feel the same nihilistic mood descend when implementing the Directive as I did when dealing with client confusion engendered by the misleading information that circulated about the cookie law a couple of years ago. The Directive seems to be worthwhile legislation that seeks to shine some much needed light on ecommerce payment processes, the shady corners of which have become infested with some nefarious practices:

Unlike the cookie law, which was grounded in uninformed ideology deployed ten years too late, the Consumer Rights Directive is grounded in common sense about the risks that businesses and consumers face as a result of poor e-commerce practices.

Anyone who has seen Heather speak about the cookie law at various conferences, and read her related blog posts will know that she has a gift for sifting internet law for what is and is not of significance for designers and their clients, and for doing so with clarity and humour. The Consumer Rights Directive is important legislation, and Heather has written the essential guide.