EU Commissioner's Consumer Plan not so Apple-Focused After All

While advance statements to the press, especially in Germany, managed to build up expectations that EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva's much anticipated program for consumer protection would include measures giving dissatisfied buyers a way to "return" downloaded tracks from iTunes and elsewhere, the actual program released this morning only makes parenthetical references to the Internet and digital music.

Yesterday, a portion of a German Focus magazine interview with Commissioner Kuneva highlighted her disapproval of the idea that audio CDs purchased anywhere could be heard through any CD player or computer, but tracks downloaded through Apple's iTunes could only be heard using iPods or Apple's software. Kuneva made this reference to illustrate the types of consumers' grievances that keep them from using the Internet to make any kind of purchases from companies outside their native countries' borders, including the US.

Multiple English translations of Focus' German printing of what Kuneva originally rendered in English have turned up on the Internet, the result being that many news sources ended up printing that Kuneva's plan would seek to somehow unbundle iTunes from the iPod device throughout Europe. Instead, not only did today's EU Consumer Policy Strategy paper contain no reference whatsoever to either iTunes or Apple, but the idea of unbundling technology products from one another may not even be within her EC purview anyway.

Indeed, Kuneva's phrase "So etwas muss sich ändern," which translates literally into "Something must change" - with regard to her personal opinion of how iTunes currently works - became reworked by several online press sources until it eventually appeared as follows: "I find it quite improper and I will do my best to change it." The mutated translation was thus repeated and broadcast as though Kuneva was compelling Apple to change its business model.

Instead, Kuneva's policy paper focuses on an entirely different, and perhaps more historically significant, issue: the degree to which the EU government should be involved in the oversight and management of cross-border commerce. Rather than adopt a "nationalized" model of interstate commerce, borrowing terms last used in that context during the 1787 debate in the US Constitutional Congress, Kuneva suggests that member states agree to adopt a uniform system of controls and regulations that they would jointly be responsible for maintaining, with the EU acting in more of an oversight capacity.

EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva"The technological revolution brought about by the Internet and digitalisation will also grow even faster," Kuneva's paper states. "E-commerce...brings significant new challenges for consumers, business and consumer protection. In particular it weakens the grip of traditional advertising and retail mediums over consumer markets. This will challenge traditional modes of regulation, self-regulation and enforcement. [Small and Medium Enterprises] will have more direct access to consumers and goods and services will be increasingly tailored to the individual. But traditional consumer rights will be less and less adapted to the digital age.

"Traders will increasingly sell to EU consumers via e-commerce from anywhere in the world," the paper continues. "This increases the challenge, but also the need to ensure effective market surveillance."

Rather than specifically outline this surveillance system, the paper spells out major policy objectives, which include further studying consumer behaviors to determine what kinds of surveillance and oversight may eventually be appropriate. Potentially, the regulation of purely digital markets such as music and media downloads may be among those markets studied, though in the holistic context of this particular overview, neither this nor other specific retail markets for e-commerce were mentioned.

A few online sources, apparently having anticipated Kuneva would make bold comments against Apple and perhaps against Steve Jobs personally, went ahead and reported that her policy paper did just that. However, the actual paper - which is available from this page - invalidates those reports.

Commissioner Kuneva's actual comments to Focus (the real ones, not the misinterpreted ones) certainly brought more attention to the issue of European regulation of interstate commerce than the subject had been attracting on its own, minus the connection to iTunes. But one unanticipated effect of those comments has been to underscore the language problem, particularly between English-speaking countries...and other English-speaking countries.

Kuneva's iTunes comments were not the only ones taken out of context by the Internet press this week. A statement she made during a press conference in her native Bulgaria, where she remarked (apparently in Bulgarian) that the focus of consumer policy should shift from purchasing specific goods like appliances and TVs to the broader, fuzzier context of online services, was translated from the once-translated English, back to Bulgarian for publication by a Sofia-based Web site, and back to English again. By that time, the statement appeared to say that 21st century consumers don't deserve EU protection if they only buy TVs...which contradicts the policy paper on so many levels.

If there is room for one final irony, this morning's policy paper was published as a Microsoft Word document.

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