How the history of consumer advocacy informs its future

Consumer advocacy organisations need to adapt so they can deal with the problems arising from a new generation of connected technology. The work Sarah, Georgina and I shared over the last few weeks suggests some ways that could work. But to understand why it’s so important they adapt it’s useful to look at their role in the past.

The beginnings of consumer advocacy

We started talking about this research project on 15th March. That’s the anniversary of when U.S. President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress in 1962 and laid out his vision of what would become the first consumer rights laws. He spoke about four basic rights: the right to be informed, to choose, to be heard and to safety.

Safety in consumer products was once focused on cars. But with electrical consumer goods starting to become more common in households and changing consumer behaviour in the post-War era, there was a clear need to ensure these new and potentially hazardous products were safe.

Consumer advocacy groups led change through campaigns. An early example by Consumers Association, known today as Which?, looked at improving the safety of electric blankets.

Their campaigning led to the Consumer Safety Act 1978, which wrote the legal requirement for goods to meet specific safety standards. This paved the way for other laws like the Plugs and Sockets Safety Regulations 1994, which specifies the legally required design and safety features of plugs used on consumer products.

Safety was improved by ensuring that products met standards. Consumer advocacy groups regularly test products to make sure that they meet those standards.

Bs1363
Since 1994, all electrical consumer goods must have plugs that meet the BS 1363 specification. It outlines a plug design which protects consumers from electric shock. (Photo: Ian Hutchinson/IF)

The nature of safety is changing

Consumers are buying more connected products. While the physical safety of these products is well-addressed by the standards consumer rights organisations have campaigned for in the past, there are new challenges around data and what “right to safety” means in this new context.

The theme for the 2017 World Consumer Rights Day is “Consumer Rights in the Digital Age”. Its organiser, Consumers International, points to unanswered questions around rights “in relation to digital products”.

There are striking examples that show this is an urgent issue. Research by Princeton University (pdf) showed that a speech-enabled personal assistant transferred text of a conversation without encryption. Consumer Reports showed that Glow, a fertility tracking app, contained a flaw that could allow anyone to access its data.

Like the electrical products of the twentieth century, consumer advocacy organisations need to intervene with the data-driven products of today. The laws we have that govern consumer protection aren’t fit for purpose in the Internet of Things age, something echoed in a report by Consumers International (pdf).

The traditional method of advocating for and applying safety standards to connected devices is difficult because of their complexity. The need for something to be safe feels too simplistic. New rights have to be thought about, and they need to be made accessible and understandable to consumers.

Food Ratings
The work of consumer rights organisations led to the creation of the Food Standards Agency. They rate places where food is prepared on a five-point scale, but a system like this wouldn’t be fit for purpose when dealing with connected products because software changes too frequently. (Photo: Ian Hutchinson/IF)

Empowering consumers through data

Design is a way of moving towards what these new rights could be, by using data to explore what consumers need to know to better understand the connected devices they’re buying.

Our design probes looked at how data can be used to improve the transparency of products, bringing the subtle changes in products out to the people that use them and how to enable consumers to make more confident buying decisions.

I think consumer advocacy organisations could provide these sorts of services to their members. Because working with data, the material of connected products, will give consumer rights groups better understanding of the privacy and security challenges, helping them to draft what basic consumer rights should look like in this new landscape.

I also think it will update what they offer and make consumer rights relevant to a younger generation of consumers. In the last fifty years the work of these organisations has protected people and saved lives. It’s vital that work continues.

Acknowledgements

We’ve had many brilliant, informative conversations during this research project:

To get a better understanding of how consumer rights organisations are looking at connected devices, we spoke to Warren Armstrong and Viveka Weiley from New Things Innovation Lab at Choice, and Geoffrey MacDougall from Consumer Reports.

Renata Avila from World Wide Web Foundation and Rebecca MacKinnon from Ranking Digital Rights gave us insight into advocacy in the digital age. Jessi Baker from Provenance gave us insight into the transparency of products.

We took some of our initial outcomes to Alastair Beresford from Cambridge University, Mark Simpkins, research assistant with the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University, and Alex Kotenko who gave us a technical perspective on them.

Thanks to our critical friends Ben Laurie and Richard Pope for support and feedback on our ideas. Richard helped us form a brief at the start of this research work.

Abby Schlageter helped us form a research framework for speaking to people about the buying process.

This project was funded by Near Now.

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