Including dangerous electrical goods in the Online Harms Bill – is the time finally right?

In Industry Comment, Industry News On
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Electrical Safety First – a leading UK consumer protection charity – is well known for its high profile media campaigns and industry events. But a significant amount of its work is done out of the spotlight, helping to develop policies which protect consumers and bring clarity to business regulations. Here Lesley Rudd (left), Chief Executive of the Charity, explains how this has recently led to it putting forward what could be ‘game changing’ legislation.

At Electrical Safety First we believe we can best protect the consumer by working with the industry – it’s the rationale for our highly regarded industry events and internationally recognised product safety conference. But our activities behind the scenes, working with Government and other stakeholders – to establish effective legislation around electrical safety and consumer protection – is also fundamental to our mission.

One area that we have focused on is the sale of dangerous electrical goods online. We believe that the law, as it stands, fails to address the responsibilities of online marketplaces in relation to dangerous electrical products. So we welcomed the Government’s plan for an Online Harms Bill, outlined in a White Paper published in April 2019.

Responding to increasing concerns around online personal security – particularly for children – the Bill aims to establish a system of accountability and oversight for tech companies. It encompasses a range of ‘harms’ arising from social media, fake news or frauds, that are widespread on the web. But we consider online harm to go beyond the Government’s current definition, because dangerous electrical goods can have a life-changing impact.

Electricity causes more than 14,000 house fires a year – almost half of all domestic fires – with most caused by electrical products. And thousands are injured by electrical accidents and injuries annually. The rising tide of counterfeit electrical products is well known and our research has found it is particularly focused on online outlets. We discovered that three out of five fake electricals are purchased online, with a third of buyers experiencing major problems with the item.

The Charity saw the Bill as an opportunity to address the fact that online marketplaces are failing in their duty of care by not protecting consumers from the hazards – the fire, shock and personal injury – unsafe electrical products can present. So we campaigned strongly to extend the remit of the Bill.

Most consumers tend to think that, if an online marketplace becomes aware of dangerous or recalled products, they automatically remove them from sale and notify buyers. But we understand this is not the case. And in the multiple investigations we have undertaken, we found electrical products, presenting a serious fire risk, are easily available from third party sellers via online marketplaces.

Currently, one of the key pieces of legislation aimed at protecting us from unsafe electrical goods is the Electric Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016, which implements the EU’s Low Voltage Directive on the marketing of electrical equipment. It includes details on the obligations of ‘economic operators’, i.e. anyone who makes, imports, sells, or distributes, electrical equipment. But the term does not encompass companies which own or run online marketplaces if they are ‘simply’ providing a platform for selling products.

We want online marketplaces to be included in the definition of economic operators. This would legally require them to ensure any electrical items sold from a fulfilment centre, or third party seller, are safe. Good communication is essential to improve safety. So we have called for online platforms to make clear if a product is being sold by a private seller, to inform buyers if a seller has sold a dangerous electrical item, or if they have removed a seller’s account from the platform. To reduce re-sales of recalled products, we also want online marketplaces to have a responsibility to contact private sellers if they are selling a recalled item. And information on any recalled, counterfeit or substandard product, should be removed from the platform within 24 hours of a confirmed, substantiated, report.

But we don’t just want online marketplaces to react to risk, we want them to be proactive. Given the sophisticated technologies available to these retail giants, it is not unreasonable to expect them to ensure effective safeguards – whether from revised algorithms, machine learning, or improved image recognition – to prevent unsafe electricals being sold on their site. Electrical Safety First consider these proposals not only improve consumer safety but also support legitimate businesses, particularly SMEs, who sell compliant electrical goods on these sites.

The Government gave a partial response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation in February, with a comprehensive response expected by the end of the year. Now, over 18 months later, the Bill has not yet been published – and our attempts at widening its parameters have not yet been thwarted. But given the obvious need for comprehensive online protection, the Charity has proposed a new Bill containing the requirements I’ve outlined above. If accepted by Parliament, this legislation would have game-changing consequences for reputable retailers and consumers alike.

We have already shared the contents of our proposed Bill with Paul Scully, the Minister for Small Business, Consumer and Labour Markets. And research undertaken for us by ComRes, found 70% of MPs want a legal responsibility for online marketplaces to reduce counterfeit and online electrical products. So, hopefully, parliamentarians will support our initiative. We are currently investigating the various routes by which our proposed Bill could be made law and we will be sure to keep you appraised of developments. We’ll be working on it!

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