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Guidelines on the protection of the online consumer

Guideline last updated at:

Are you active in e-commerce and is increasing your conversion rate important to you? If so, you want to persuade customers into buying your product. That is allowed. However, not everything is allowed, because online persuasion cannot turn into deception. And in order to prevent deception, ACM drew up the Guidelines on the Protection of the Online Consumer.

These guidelines are meant as a tool for online businesses, marketers, and people that work in e-commerce. In these guidelines, you can find out where the boundary lies between persuasion and deception in online environments, on the basis of current rules and regulations. If you comply with the rules in these guidelines, you will prevent your customers from being misled or feeling pressured. In addition, you can find tips on how you can design your online environment in such a way that customers are able to make sound and fair choices. ACM monitors whether businesses comply with these rules. Be aware of what is allowed and what is not allowed.

You can download these guidelines as a PDF. Attention: the information on these page may change. For the most up-to-date version of the guidelines, check this site.

Principles : How do you prevent deception in an online environment?

The most important principle is the consumer’s interest. Consumers must have sound information in order to be able to decide whether they wish to buy a product or service. Persuasion is allowed, but may go too far if your persuasion techniques nudge the average consumer to make a choice they would not have made if they had been able to make a well-informed decision. This means there are limits to how much you can influence consumers in their decision-making processes. Below, we have listed the basic principles for preventing misleading practices or deception in online environments.

Have the right processes in place within your business to prevent online misleading practices. Make sure the marketing, design, and legal departments coordinate well with each other. For example, have your online environment checked by a legal expert. Do not manage your designers and marketers of your website solely in terms of increasing your conversion rate, but also in terms of compliance with the rules, or in terms of how well consumers are able to make an informed decision and the right choice. Check whether your business works according to the basic principles of fairness by design (which means that, when designing your online environment, you ensure that people are able to make a fair choice) and privacy by design (this means that, already when you design your online environment, you ensure that personal data is well protected).

Check whether your online environment helps consumers in making an informed decision. Therefore, do not only measure the sales, but also whether consumers are making a choice they would have also made without your persuasion techniques. Analyze whether the design of your online environment or the use of persuasion techniques produce any harmful effects for consumers. Test whether consumers see and understand all information. Do you use algorithms? These too have to comply with consumer protection rules. As such, test and monitor your algorithms. You are responsible for the working of the algorithms.

In any case, state the price and all costs in euros, and give a sufficiently detailed description of the product or the service. Also state information about the collection or use of data. Do you present products in a certain order, personalize products or prices, or use algorithms? Tell consumers you do, and explain how you do this. And finally: did you pay a consumer to write a review? Clearly state this.

Only call your product or service ‘free’ (or anything similar) if it is true. If consumers pay with personal data, it is not ‘free’. An app in which in-app purchases are possible is also not free. Tell consumers this. Moreover, do not give the impression that consumers have to decide quickly to purchase something if this is not true, for example by using false notifications such as: ‘only a few items left’ or ‘limited-time offer’. And finally: do not use fake reviews.

The language level of your clients can vary greatly. Therefore, always make sure that you offer the information in a form and language that your target audience can understand. For example, avoid jargon (legal or otherwise), double negatives, discontinuous structures, and words with ambiguous meanings. You can only know whether people really understand your information if you analyze comprehension.

Consumers must be able to make an informed decision. Essential information, such as the price, therefore, must be clear right at the start of every offer. In any case, you must provide other important information before consumers make their purchase. Are consumers required to create an account? In that case too, give all important information on time.

Any information that is important to consumers’ decisions cannot be hidden on your website or in the general terms and conditions. Consumers must be able to find information on, for example, customer service, use of personal data, and other conditions in a logical place.

Consumers cannot be put on the wrong track by the design of the online environment. Use well-organized menus and offer options in a balanced manner. For example, any options that are unfavorable to the business cannot be hidden behind multiple clicks, or on hard-to-find pages. In addition, think of the use of clear fonts and logical colors, icons, and click sequences.

Do you use default settings to make consumers make a specific choice, for example using pre-ticked boxes? Such settings cannot influence consumers in their decision-making processes on the basis of pressure, undue influence, or incorrect information. In any case, never use pre-ticked boxes if you offer consumers a product for which they have to pay. It is also not allowed to pre-tick the box for signing up for a newsletter for people who are not yet customers.

Be mindful of the limitations of consumers in terms of attention, energy, and time. Do not exploit consumers’ vulnerabilities to urge them to purchase something. Some groups of consumers are extra vulnerable, for example elderly people and children. Be conscious of the fact that all consumers can be temporarily vulnerable under special circumstances.

Be careful with stacking persuasion techniques and design choices that nudge consumers to do certain things. This increases the chance of deception and undue influence. In its assessments of practices, ACM looks at the big picture. Therefore, check whether the whole of your online environment does not produce any harmful effects to consumers.

Clear information : What do you need to inform online consumers about according to the law, and how do you do so?

Consumers need clear, correct, and complete information. With such information, they are able to decide whether they wish to buy a product from you. Below is a list of the rules that apply to specific topics.

Fair design : What rules apply to the design of your online environment?

You cannot mislead consumers with your design into making a purchase, giving your their consent, or consenting to a renewal. It is important that consumers are able to trust online environments. Below is a list of the rules that apply to specific topics.

Free choice : How do you offer consumers a free and fair choice to buy or use something online?

Do no pressure consumers, and provide honest information. Below is a list of the rules that apply to specific topics.