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Guest post: ‘The opportunities of the digital age’ by Liz Coll

Posted on: Monday 28th of April 2014

Widespread access to powerful, social technology has dramatically changed the context in which businesses deliver, people consume and governments regulate. As a consumer campaigner, I’m particularly interested in the potential of technology to deliver a more balanced relationship between consumers, businesses and policy makers. Technology and social channels now enable such balanced relationships, which if managed appropriately could potentially create win-win opportunities for all concerned. Change is happening as a result of the long-term manifestation of digital trends in our daily lives which have altered our behaviour and expectations. This is all part of the ‘control shift’, changing relationships between individuals and organisations as trust around uses of personal data becomes increasingly important. Understanding and working productively in this complicated new terrain will be a critical task for everyone working in the consumer interest.

The trends that characterise this change in context are explored in a recent paper from Consumer Futures called ‘Realising consumer rights: from JFK to the digital age‘ by myself and Richard Bates. The paper looks at the new ways in which consumer rights, first set out by JFK in 1962, have the potential to be realised in 2014 – ways that complement, or even bypass, traditional channels.

For those charting the rise in personal data empowerment applications, some of these trends (such as a reduction in the cost of processing information, the increase in consumer-generated data, and a new generation of intermediaries) will be familiar. Others, like the ability to easily form groups, the expectation of transparency, and ability to have a louder voice online are also considered, along with their potential to both empower and disempower consumers. Issues around privacy, data, identity, trust, participation and power are central now to consumers (and businesses and regulators) in the digitally driven world. Even with the rise of data securing and privacy online, consumers continue to purchase in the online space. Take a look at some of the staggering ecommerce numbers in this infographic.

When JFK delivered his speech in 1962, early ideas for a connected set of computers were only just emerging, and the forerunners to personal computers were being launched as prototypes. Now, 80% of UK households have access to the internet, with 100,000 tweets, 685,000 Facebook shares and 48 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day. The change is immense. Then, JFK pointed out that consumers were “the only important group in the economy…whose views are often not heard”, now 88% of us are consulting peer reviews before we buy and vocalising our experiences and complaints en masse.

The role for consumer groups as trusted representatives and advocates for consumers was a clear, although not always easy one. Specific rights like the right to safety were realised through standards, quality marks and inspections – part of a suite of hard fought for consumer protections won by the movement. Now, with competition for consumer trust, trade-offs between participation in technology and lack of privacy, and a new industry of digital consumer empowerment emerging from outside the traditional space, how to play an effective role needs careful consideration. This month, Consumer Futures became part of Citizens Advice and together we will be taking the discussion sparked by the paper further with regulators, policy makers and consumer advocates, get in touch if you’d like to be part of the conversation.

Email: liz.coll@citizensadvice.org.ukrichard@coalitionprojects.com

Twitter: @elcoll @rchrdbts