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19jul opinion why independent advocacy hero
19 July 2019

Opinion: Why do we need independent advocacy for consumers?

Data – the new frontline of consumer protection.

Modern consumers are unlikely to be harmed by faulty wiring in their toasters. They might have been 60 years ago when Consumer NZ was founded. The work of consumer organisations in independently testing and holding substandard producers accountable has been critical in getting us to this point.

But today consumer jeopardy doesn’t end with reliable products. While I expect my toaster to operate safely for its lifetime, it may pose a new risk to me that I am increasingly powerless to mitigate.

We are seeing a proliferation of products and services where data collection is unavoidable. I might just want toast, but to operate my toaster I need to allow data to be collected on me. I probably ticked “accept” in the terms and conditions when I logged on to set up my toaster. I actually just wanted toast, so I didn’t read them. Nor did I read the terms for my fridge, TV or Netflix subscription.

If I had, I would have realised the data my appliances collect through my use of them could be provided to third parties. This could be useful – for example, advertisers could offer me new types of bread to try, or alternatives to improve my health. But what if my insurance company asks for the data to calculate my health insurance premium or uses it as the basis for declining cover? I just wanted toast, now I can’t get insurance.

The limitless ability to collect and use consumer data means trusting companies have our best interests in mind – but do they? They need to turn a profit and targeting consumers individually is a good way to do this.

Our consumer protection laws are clear, products need to be of an acceptable quality, firms can’t mislead us or collude with each other and we need to consent to our data being collected and used. If they stay within these tramlines, there is nothing that says firms need to behave ethically with our data. There is no law requiring firms to put the best interests of customers ahead of maximising profits. Arguably the opposite is true. The only power consumers have is choosing not to buy a product or service, but even that power is eroding. Most of the uses of our data happen out of our sight. How then do we know which companies are acting ethically? Who holds them accountable?

We are being bought and sold by advertisers

It used to be that companies advertised their products to groups of interested potential customers – for example, a bank targeting first home-buyers or students. It was scattergun but left consumers at arm’s length from the advertiser.

But firms today have access to so much data about us individually they don’t need to generalise their advertising. The new model is laser-focused on the individual and the power is heavily in favour of the advertiser. This data could include our individual buying patterns tracked across the web (not just the advertiser’s website), our interests and values based on what we post on social media, or based on the content of our emails and text messages, purchasing patterns gleaned from information held by loyalty programmes or even evidence of our susceptibility to certain advertising at certain times. Put all this together and you have a good starting point to pitch products.

Consumers today are more vulnerable than ever to manipulation and discrimination by firms, because firms don’t have to guess our weaknesses, they know them. How did this happen? We told them. We gave permission to mine our emails, to track our web-browsing and to sell that data to the highest bidder.

Are we really making choices?

This isn’t a dystopian fantasy. This is happening now. The vulnerability of consumers will only increase as technology improves the ability of companies to collect and process our data. We already have phones, TVs and digital personal assistants in our homes that are listening, always ready to recommend the top five search results for new heat pumps or toasters.

So are we ever making genuine choices?

We are increasingly reliant on a small number of companies controlling much of the information we use to research and make purchasing decisions. If Google produces and ranks the search results our Android (owned by Google) phones select when we ask for recommendations on new smartphones, is there genuine independence?

We are asked to trust the results we see are a fair reflection of the information out there – but, as repeated examples show, the information we see from search engine results to “news” on our social media pages is often served up on behalf of the highest bidder. While we love using Google or Facebook free, in doing so we put ourselves at the mercy of their business models and ethics.

That’s depressing – so what do we do?

One of the reasons I am so excited to be Consumer NZ Chair in this moment is that Consumer NZ has the unique ability to make a difference.

Our independence means the only people paying us to provide information are our members, New Zealand consumers. We don’t accept advertising and we are not government-funded – a truly independent voice acting in the best interests of consumers.

I am looking forward to working with the team to campaign for fairer, transparent data use by companies supplying goods and services. Helping to educate and ultimately hold companies to account by highlighting where they are acting unethically.

As we approach our 60th anniversary celebrations this year, I am energised about fighting for New Zealanders on this new frontline of consumer protection.

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