Why the end of Consumer Focus is a blow to UK tech policy

When a government in the midst of a cuts agenda releases a report entitled Empowering and Protecting Consumers, you just know it will not be good news for under-empowered and unprotected consumers in the cut-throat utilities sector.

I imagine the report might have started life as a memo: ‘make a case for getting rid of these meddling windbags’.

What many people, even those in the tech sector, perhaps don’t appreciate is the role Consumer Focus plays in batting for sense in UK tech policy.

It’s somewhat unusual for me - on the whole not a huge fan of Big Government - to champion the case for a taxpayer-funded consumer advocacy group. But the more I learned of their role as I fought for rationality in the Government’s digital strategy, the more liked.

Consumer Focus is not Big Government. It’s a safeguard against unavoidable monopolies in the utilities sector, including Internet Service Providers. It fights largely from behind the scenes, pushing back against many of the self-interested demands of tech lobbyists.

Their involvement in digital policy is part of a varied brief representing consumer interests in the utilities and communications sector, and the confirmation that its closure will be complete by 2014 is hugely disappointing.

Back in December I sat around a very large square table with Consumer Focus Chief Exec Mike O’Connor, the Open Rights Group’s Jim Killock, Minister for the Internets Ed Vaizey and what must have been thirty lobbyists representing copyright owners and big tech companies.

Consumer voices matter because the internet is more than six global tech giants, or UK ISPs, the payment services providers or internet advertisers; just as it’s more than a fat pipe to push mainstream ‘cultural’ products into our living rooms.

A theme I make no apology for coming back to time and time again is regulatory capture. Today’s powerful incumbents push for laws which suit them.

At times, e.g. when Google joins forces to fight Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), it works out well. But I know in my heart that Google, as with any commercial entity, can’t be relied upon to represent the interests of the consumer.

So when I look around the room and see pro-copyright lobbyists from British Phonographic Industry (BPI), Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Premier League etc facing off against the likes of Google, Microsoft, BT, Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), I’m pleased there are well-funded bodies like Consumer Focus able to weigh in with concerns about the impact on poorer households of the Digital Economy Act Appeals fee.

That goes double since the lobbyists on both sides of the fence (tech industry and rights holders) seemed far too friendly with each other for my liking. Too much went unchallenged. Here sat two groups of organisations striving to carve out a deal to protect their respective bottom lines.

I tried to challenge some of the craziest assertions, but I and the Open Rights Group found ourselves disinvited to the next round despite me writing to Ed Vaizey asking him to open up such meetings to wider public scrutiny and despite the minister trumpeting our involvement in Parliament.

And now the comfort I get from knowing that Consumer Focus is quietly working its magic is also about to end.

The case made in Empowering and Protecting Consumers is that Consumer Focus would better serve consumers if its role was merged into the charity Citizens Advice. The vacuous words one stop shop weren’t used, but essentially the only case for merging Consumer Focus into an organisation very different in nature is specious on close examination.

Yes, both Citizens Advice and Consumer Focus have worked together in the past on consumer issues such as those surrounding the Digital Economy Act. But whilst the Citizens Advice Bureaux primarily offer front-line support for consumers, Consumer Focus is a port of last call when it comes to individuals.

Instead its focus, if you’ll excuse the small pun, is to ensure systems and procedures exist with suppliers and in the general operation of the market to protect the wider interests of consumers.

It has a budget to conduct research and is able to lobby for or against legislation that will impact consumers. But with the merger it looks like this budget will all but disappear; the report’s authors felt the need to include a thinly-veiled acknowledgement of the impact on consumers:

“But we are keen to ensure continuity and capability during a time of economic stress. We will therefore begin a phased transition of these activities...”

Translation: We’ll delay the bad.

Additionally, Citizens Advice operates as a charity. There are strict rules limiting the involvement of charities in the political and lobbying sector and I’m left wondering who lobbied for the end of a powerful consumer voice in Westminster.


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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