WORLD CONSUMER RIGHTS DAY 2019

COMMENTARY ON TRUSTED SMART PRODUCTS: WORLD CONSUMER RIGHTS DAY 2019

On 15 March every year, consumers across the globe celebrate the World Consumer Rights Day. This event which had its roots in the famous declaration of four basic Consumer Rights to the Congress in 1962 by the US President, John F. Kennedy was first celebrated globally in 1983. It has since become an annual occasion to remind governments and suppliers of products and services about their obligations to consumers. The event has been boosted by successive United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection and concerted efforts of the Consumers International, a federation of consumer organisations and agencies from different parts of the world.

Nigeria has been taking steps to protect the rights of consumers through legislative enactments and establishment of consumer protection agencies. The latest measure in this regard is the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission Act recently passed by the Federal Government which is expected to address many consumer issues that were not captured by earlier consumer protection laws. Novel issues contained in this law include anti-competition and restrictive practices; misleading, deceptive and unconscionable marketing;replacement and repair of unsafe products and effective consumer redress mechanisms.

The theme of this year’s World Consumer Rights Day is ‘Trusted Smart Products’. The theme addresses opportunities and challenges in smart products.This theme is of immense relevance to Nigeria’s contemporary environment. Nigeria is reputed as a popular market in Africa. This is not surprising given the large population of the country coupled with the high demand for different products and services. In particular, the demand for smart products has been on the increase thereby encouraging the influx of investors into the market. Nigeria has an impressive number of online shops offering diverse products and services including smart products. Apart from online shops operated by indigenous investors, many Nigerians purchase a wide range ofsmart products from foreign-based online shops.

Smart products which include smart phones, television sets, wristwatches, toys, fitness trackers, thermostats, lightbulbs, home security systems, connected cars and a host of other electronic devices have been embraced by all categories of consumers in Nigeria. These products are connected to the Internet andare capable of receiving, analysing and transmitting user data to other connected devices in a network known in this context as Internet of Things. The digital technology has brought about an unprecedented growth and demand for smart products. Research shows that currently there are 23.1 billion smart products in the world. It is expected that as internet connectivity increases, demand for smart products will also increase. Industry statistics of the Nigerian Communications Commission disclose that there were over 113 million active internet subscribers in Nigeria as at January this year. The number is expected to rise given the relative growth in the last five years and some measures put in place by the Commission to achieve broadband penetration.

Amidst these developments are concerns which create scepticisms about smart products.Key concerns associated with these products include product safety, privacy and security of personal and financial information, identity theft, transparency and complex features of some of the products. Affordability of data is a recurrent concern as it inhibits access by the less privileged consumers. Inadequate internet penetration to the rural areas constitutes a further obstacle to adoption of smart products in such areas. 

To achieve a more rapid growth, the cost of data must be addressed by stakeholders. A survey report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet reveals thatthe cost of data packages in developing countries remains the highest in the world thus constituting a barrier to effective adoption of smart products in these countries. Nigeria fits into this bracket of high data cost and this impactsnegatively on accessibility of the Internet which is a major propeller of smart products.

Despite these shortcomings, there is no gain saying the fact that smart products hold immense benefits to consumers and society at large. Industrial operations, teaching and learning, medical treatment, communications between business associates, financial and banking services have all been boosted by smart products. In Nigeria, immense benefits are seen in the area of smartphones. Apart from calls and short message services, smartphones provide easy and convenient medium for payment of bills, remittances, transaction alerts, monitoring of home security systems and a myriad of events about the user.

Furthermore, some smart products offer special benefits to people with special needs. Popular examples are smart watches and smart lightbulbs. The smart watch for people with sight loss vibrates when the user receives an email and translates into braille while the lightbulb meant for the deaf alerts the user when the phone or any other object to which it is connected is ringing.

The areas of coverage of smart products have continued to expand. In September 2018, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) launched the Smart Incubator, a programme created to assist and support technology-oriented entrepreneurs and start-ups in the early development stages including but not limited to Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain and Internet of Things (IoT).

These developments demonstrate that in today’s technological age, smart products are indispensable. There is, however, a need for proactive measures to address the issues which undermine consumer protection in relation to these products. Consumers should use smart products with prudence, read policy and privacy statements, verify suppliers’ dispute resolution mechanisms, consult experts before purchasing a complex smart product and observe all safety cautions instituted by the manufacturer. Government can facilitate adoption of smart products for educational purposes by creating incentives that motivate suppliers to offer subsidised rates to students and educational institutions. Awareness creation is another area that can be pursued to empower consumers to understand the opportunities and risks associated with smart products. Manufacturers as key stakeholders must embrace quality, safety, built-in security devices and transparency in order to create a better digital world through trusted smart products.   

Professor Felicia Monye

Faculty of Law,

University of Nigeria,

Enugu Campus.

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