Protecting consumers in a new era of digital enterprise

I’ve just returned from California, where one of my engagements was to speak at the ODR 14 conference.

The success of ODR – online dispute resolution – is one of Silicon Valley’s best kept secrets. 16_AMNG_NJG10686bTake Modria, the ODR platform founded by this year’s organiser, Colin Rule.

It resolves more than 60 million disputes for users of eBay and Paypal every year – a figure that speaks to its appeal and advantages to consumers over traditional routes to redress, such as small claims courts.

Other providers, such as Youstice, are entering this space with their own innovative takes on dispute resolution.

They form part of a nascent, but growing landscape of apps and services that look to remove the friction and frustration of seeing complaints and disputes through to successful resolution. Examples of the wider landscape include the train refunds app in the UK, which makes it easy for commuters to claim the compensation they are due for delayed journeys.

My speech  formed part of a session entitled ‘Consumer Protection and the Collaborative Economy’.

Fellow speakers included former Directors of Trust and Safety from AirBnB andTaskRabbit.

The collaborative economy has grown at an astonishing rate in a short time. Take two of its best known platforms – Airbnb, the peer-to-peer short-term accommodation letting service and Uber, the service that links drivers with people who need transporting between places.

Airbnb has gone from zero to 600k listings and 15m guest bookings in less than six years. Uber has gone from zero to activity in 130 cities globally, providing millions of trips in less than five years.

That growth reflects their popularity with consumers, who have responded positively to the innovation and competition, choice and value these platforms have brought to their respective sectors.

However, as the speech noted, the rapid growth of these services can present a range of challenges on how to ensure longstanding consumer protections – such as those relating to fair treatment and safety – can best be transposed to the collaborative economy.  And how to achieve that without strangling the innovation that sets these companies apart.

The rulebooks that govern the markets that collaborative economy enterprises are disrupting were drafted at a time when services of this kind were unimaginable.

Therefore, the wisdom of just throwing the existing rulebook at these services has to be questioned.

Particularly where the service in question blurs across traditional regulatory siloes. Yet that’s what we’re seeing in the responses of some city authorities – a reflexive reaction that risks favouring incumbents more than it favours consumers.

Neither is complacency the answer. Indeed, providers of collaborative economy services need to realise that a perception of complacency, or worse, immunity, is likely to attract the kind of sub-optimal reflexive reaction outlined above.

So what is the answer? Simple: consumers must be the winner. But while this answer is simple, figuring out how we arrive at it will be more complex.

In some instances legislation and regulation will undoubtedly need to be rethought; and this has to happen in ways that can deliver a dual outcome that supports both innovation and protection, rather than having one trump the other.

But the key response has to come from collaborative economy enterprises themselves.

They will need to evince their pro-consumer credentials by demonstrating that where their innovation delivers a better proposition for consumers, protection is designed into that proposition.

Consumer bodies are ideally placed to help both collaborative economy enterprises and the relevant authorities navigate this complexity; and have an interest in doing so.

We understand the protections that must endure and why that is so; and have a deep understanding of the mechanisms by which this can be achieved.

And we also understand the benefits that collaborative platforms are delivering to consumers. Collaboration with us will be key to arriving at the right answer.

This article was originally published on Consumers International blog.