Flipkart, Uber and others have brought us great benefits through technology. Laws need to catch up about accountability too
The rape of a young woman in Delhi by an Uber cab driver, and the government’s ban on all web-based car hire or ‘ride sharing’ companies, evoked sharp and diverse reactions that extend far beyond the safety issue.
Yes, safety is a concern for all women; Uber’s failure to implement its claim of ‘rigorous background checks’ in India was seen as a serious breach of trust by women. Uber’s claims and its GPS-tracking with driver details had led women to believe that the ride was completely safe.
At the same time, such was the convenience, comfort, pricing and ease of use provided by web-based cab companies that the government’s knee-jerk attempt to ban them led to a massive consumer backlash. Upwardly mobile young India, fed up of pathetic public transport, lack of segmentation and the growing struggle with parking or availability of drivers, took to social media to voice angry protests. Their message to the government was: regulate by all means, but don’t mess around with private initiatives to fill the massive gap in comfortable public transport that technology has enabled.
To me, the message from the Uber episode is that even the most innovative company in the world needs regulation and supervision; but don’t force it to deal with mindless red-tape, impossible conditions, permits and corruption. Uber was undoubtedly lax about several aspects of its Indian operations, not just driver verification. For instance, all emails for support were ignored for weeks; it sent a flurry of responses after the government crackdown. Uber also turned serious about implementing workable e-wallet only after the regrettable rape-episode.
What happened with Uber holds for every other technology-enabled consumer service. But such is the state of consumer activism in India that, without a catastrophic event that threatens business survival, most companies are focused on sales and not on consumer interest. Here are a few examples.
Flipkart and Snapdeal made headlines in November, with their record-shattering online sales, when some products were sold below the distributor price offered by manufacturers. Flipkart and Snapdeal, flush with private-equity funding, indulged in predatory pricing that triggered protests by brick-and-mortar retailers. Manufacturers were forced to take cognisance of their complaints and some companies responded by refusing to offer a warranty on products bought online. For instance, Videocon’s website clearly states it will not offer a warranty on products purchased on Snapdeal. However, the Snapdeal website displays a full, 1+2-year product warranty with no disclaimers about Videocon’s stand.
Where does this leave the consumer? Is Snapdeal’s website being honest? Can Videocon withhold the warranty? The issue is complex. Consumer activist and advocate, Jehangir Gai, is clear that a warranty is provided by the manufacturer and not the seller. The warranty goes with the product and, technically, Videocon will not be able to deny it. However, what if it does?
Where does that leave the Snapdeal consumer who expected an automatic, hassle-free warranty? Will she be forced to fight it out with Videocon? Why? After all, she is a Snapdeal customer who bought the product believing the specific claim on Snapdeal’s website. If there has to be a battle to clarify the law, it should be between Videocon and Snapdeal. What if Snapdeal claims that it is only a marketplace aggregating sellers which bills customers directly and supplies products? Will the consumer have to deal with a seller she knows nothing about?
Online marketplaces, like Snapdeal, Flipkart or Amazon, must be made responsible for claims made on their website. Any issue with sellers or manufacturers have to be handled by them and cannot be dumped on the customer. The ministry of consumer affairs, which has recently announced that its writ extends to e-commerce transactions, must take cognisance of this issue and clarify the situation. But we know from experience that government regulators do not stir until there is a flashpoint, like in the Uber case or litigation making them respondents. The first Snapdeal customer to invoke the warranty and put up a fight will probably be the guinea pig for this issue.
Buying online is a terrific experience when things go well but is a nightmare when the product is not delivered, is defective or different from what was ordered. Lack of information on the authenticity of several e-commerce sites with big publicity budgets is also a growing problem.
Now, consider another situation. Automation of the passport issuance process has been a boon to ordinary people. But did you know that your personal information provided to procure this important document, issued by the government of India, is being shared with private insurance companies? We were shocked to discover that the online application form at passportindia.gov.in has a pre-ticked check-box for ‘additional services’ seeking consent to share your personal data (name, contact details, gender, application type and educational qualification) with Cholamandalam’s Shubh Yatra Travel Insurance.
Most people are likely to check the box not knowing its privacy implications. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which is handling the privatisation process, insists that the consent is explicitly sought. Our question is: Why should a high security document, like a passport, extract additional revenue by collating and selling data to private companies? Who else is allowed access to this data? And who gets the revenue—the government or TCS?
It is a matter of concern that we, the people, who pay a passport fee as well as for SMS alerts to track its status, have no information about the data sale deal. It also raises questions about the security of biometric data collected by the passport office, registrars at stamp offices and the Aadhaar data collected by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). How secure is this data? Can it be sold by sending us a bland email with an ‘opt-out’ option that few will understand? These are questions that any mature system needs to address transparently.
I would submit that Indian consumers need to be aware of and empowered on issues that are far more basic, like the right to products of exact weights and measures. A Moneylife Foundation seminar, addressed by Sanjay Pandey, controller, legal metrology department in Maharashtra, provided some eye-opening information on how we have purchased property for decades without knowing that it cannot be sold in square feet but only in square metres. Realty company advertisements also tend to stretch, or shrink, distances at will to make their project location more attractive; the consumer’s only recourse is to do her own due diligence.
On 12th December, the media reported that the Delhi High Court had ordered Sistema Shyam Teleservices (under the brand name MTS) to bring its equipment to court, to test its advertisement claim of Internet speeds of up to 9.8Mbps. The company had challenged an order by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) which upheld a complaint that MTS has made misleading claims. Justice Vibhu Bakhru seemed certain that MTS’s claimed speed would only work under test conditions. The company did not put the issue to test and the case was disposed off in ASCI’s favour.
But the fact is that on issues like Internet speeds, which are not even incorporated in the Legal Metrology Act, almost every company offering Internet services gets away with tall claims as is evident from any online discussion forum on these services.
It is yet another example of how we, as customers, are so grateful for the life-changing benefits of ever-evolving and improving technology that we hesitate to complain about service standards.
False and exaggerated claims, that would have caused outrage in traditional businesses, don’t seem to be an issue in the tech world. Isn’t it time that we begin to treat technology as a normal part of our lives and subject its costs, claims and accuracy to the same standards that we apply to other products and services?
(Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of Moneylife. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2006 for her outstanding contribution to journalism. She can be reached at [email protected]