Centre for Internet & Society

The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, recognizing the need for protection of the rights of consumers, drafted a set of model guidelines on consumer protection which were adopted by the General Assembly in 1985. The United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP) act as an international reference point of the consumer movement, however since it has been over a quarter of a century since they were first drafted, there is a strong argument for revising them to bring them in line with new developments in technology and business practices.

It is for this reason that that United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has undertaken a revision of the UNGCP. Consumers International, an international consumer rights organization has along with CIS and other groups been trying to represent the voice of consumers at the negotiations for this revision. As part of this effort, Consumers International has produced a book titled "Updating the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection for Consumers in the Digital Age". This blog has been produced through a filteration of the essence of some of the arguments and issues addressed in that book.

In December 2012 there was a news report that pegged the market for online commerce in India at roughly USD 14 billion,[1] which is why some of the poster children of online retail in India are getting stratospheric valuations even though they are yet to show any major profits, case in point, Flipkart had a valuation of around USD 800 million[2] in 2012 and is looking for an IPO in around three to four years. Such huge numbers give a sneak peek into the size and scope of the Indian e-commerce marketplace which begs the question, if there are so many transactions occurring in the online marketplace and since a large number of those transactions are between retailers and domestic consumers, then are there any specific laws out there protecting the interests of consumers in the online world.

Apart from the Information Technology Act, 2000 and various circulars by the Reserve Bank of India regarding online banking and money transfer activities which are more generic in nature trying to secure the online space as a whole, there are no specific laws that seek to protect consumers in the online space. However, that does not necessarily mean that the consumers are left without any recourse and in this post we shall examine whether it is possible to use the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 to protect consumer rights in the online environment as well.

The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (“COPRA”) was enacted with the purpose of empowering consumers to take on the might of large corporations and preventing unscrupulous businessmen from taking undue advantage of the weak position which consumers are inherently placed  in under the archaic Indian judicial system. It set up special tribunals, simpler procedures and enacted special provisions to help consumers get a better bargaining position vis-à-vis manufacturers and retailers, etc. However, since this law was enacted more than a quarter of a century ago and it is not entirely geared towards protecting consumer rights in the digital era. However, that does not mean it is entirely toothless in the online environment although it certainly needs some major provisions to come to grasp with the special circumstances and practices of the online marketplace, as the rest of the discussion will demonstrate.

For any transaction to come under the purview of COPRA, it should have the following three essential requirements:

  1. There should be a ‘good’ or ‘service’ sold or provided to a consumer;
  2. Such good or service must be ‘sold’ i.e. there must be a ‘sale’;
  3. There should be a ‘defect’ in the good or ‘deficiency’ in the service;

We will now examine different types of e-commerce transactions and discuss whether they fulfill the requirements given above and therefore are amenable to the jurisdiction of COPRA.

There should be a ‘good’ or ‘service’
This is issue is not very complicated so far as digital purchases of physical items are concerned. Since a book or a mobile phone is considered as a ‘good’ then it will always be considered as a ‘good’ irrespective of whether it has been bought from a physical shop or an online retailer. However, the question does take on an air of some complexity when dealing with digital items such as mp3 files and software programmes. The General Clauses Act, 1897 states that all property which is not immovable property is considered as movable property. Since immovable property is defined as land and things attached to the land, therefore it is pretty clear that ‘computer software’ would in all likelihood be considered as movable property. Whether such movable property can be considered as a ‘good’ or not is a question which is yet to be tested in the courts of law in India, however it must be mentioned that in the context of the Sales Tax Act, the Supreme Court of India has held canned software to be a ‘good’. Laying down a test for determining whether a property is a ‘good’ or not, the Supreme Court in that case laid down the following test:

“A 'goods' may be a tangible property or an intangible one. It would become goods provided it has the attributes thereof having regard to (a) its utility; (b) capable of being bought and sold; and (c) capable of transmitted, transferred, delivered, stored and possessed. If a software whether customized or non-customized satisfies these attributes, the same would be goods.[3]

It must be emphasized again that the Supreme Court’s ruling was given in the context of the Sales Tax Act and it may not be accepted by a court deciding a case on COPRA. This is one issue which could and should be addressed under Indian laws to ensure that the large numbers of Indian consumers who buy items in the online marketplace are not left in a lurch and without the protection of the COPRA.

There must be a “Sale” of the good or service
Just as the previous issue, this question again can be simple when asked in relation to sale of physical goods using the internet but may not be so when talking about digital goods. When a physical item is purchased using the internet, a sale may be said to have occurred when the ownership of the good passes from the seller (online retailer) to the buyer (consumer) and the payment and delivery are complete. However, the question whether sale of software (here we are using this generic term for all sorts of computer programmes and data because the reasoning and legal analysis can be applied to both types of data) in an online environment would actually constitute a ‘sale’ requires a little more analysis. A huge problem in labeling online software purchases as a ‘sale’ is that most of these ‘sales’ are made in the form of a license. The manufacturers or retailers would argue that such an online purchase is not really a sale since the consumer usually only gets a license to use the product under strict conditions and does not buy the product as an owner, further this is really the industry standard when it comes to software purchases. The argument on the other side is that most websites advertise these products as an outside sale, for example, if you go to the Quick Heal antivirus website today and go to the page for “Home Users”[4] the page clearly shows a “Buy Now” tab and indicates the price at Rs. 1549/-. In fact in a number of cases you can actually buy the file containing the software without ever being shown the contractual terms of the agreement. These terms usually specify that you are only getting a license to use the product and may not have the right to resell or lend the product to others, rights which a traditional buyer of a product enjoys under law.

This issue was also discussed by a Full Bench of the Supreme Court of India in the case of Tata Consultancy Services v. State of Andhra Pradesh,[5] which ultimately held that the ‘sale’ of canned software (the term the court used for non customized software which is sold off the shelf) would be a sale of goods and therefore liable to be taxed under the Sales Tax Act. As is evident this decision was given in the context of the Sales Tax Act, but it could be argued that since tax statues are anyways supposed to be interpreted strictly and beneficial statutes such as the COPRA are required to be interpreted broadly, as per the accepted rules of legal interpretation, therefore it is possible that such a ‘license’ for computer software bought by an ordinary consumer could be considered as a ‘sale’ so as to bring the item within the ambit of the COPRA.

Here again we see that although there might be arguments which could be made to justify such licences for computer software as a ‘sale’, however it is still an untested issue and the COPRA certainly needs to take these issues into account if we want to protect the rights of the ever growing number of online consumers.

There should be a “defect” in the goods
If I order a pair of shoes from flpikart.com and the shoes arrive with one of the soles torn off, it’s a pretty straightforward case of there being a defect. In such a scenario unless the retailer has a specified return policy (which incidentally flipkart has) the consumer would have a right to approach the consumer forum to lodge a compliant. Similarly, if I buy a software from a manufacturer for my personal use and the file has a bug in it, it can fairly easily be considered as a defect since any fault, imperfection or shortcoming in the quality, quantity, potency, purity or standard or the good can be considered as a defect.

This is where things get a little interesting. What if we argue that stringent Digital Rights Management techniques by some online retailers are actually a defect in the goods since they do give the consumer all the rights that a buyer of goods would traditionally have. For example, if I buy an e-book with DRMs which restrict lending and on-selling, then two of my rights as a traditional book buyer are straightaway rescinded. Let us now examine the issue in the traditional context of the term ‘defect’.

If an article bought has any fault, imperfection or shortcoming in the quality, etc., then it would be considered as a defective good. For example, if a person buys a generator which is creating excessive noise, then it can be said that there is a shortcoming in the quality or the standard which is required to be maintained. A generator may supply electricity perfectly well and there may not be any fault at the time of running the machine but while operating the machine if it is creating more noise than the prescribed level, it can be said that there is a defect in the manufacture. An e-book with DRMs may also let a consumer read its contents but that may not be the only criteria to determine whether an item is defective or not. Using the traditional definition of a ‘buyer’, we can argue that a traditional buyer commonly has rights such as the right to resale, the right to make copies for personal use, the right to lend, the right to gift, etc., which may not exist in a an e-book with DRMs. Thus, an argument could be made that such measures constitute a ‘defect’ in the goods under the COPRA.

Again, this is only an argument and it is entirely possible that a court of law may reject such an argument, especially in light of the fact that the consumer has entered into a license agreement while completing the transaction which specifically grants the consumer only specific and limited rights in regard to the item being purchased. A possible counter to this argument could be that the agreement is generally long and verbose and is only presented to the consumer towards the end of the transaction when the consumer generally does not have the time to read it. Further, there is hardly ever a situation where the consumer can negotiate the terms of the contract, it is usually a standard form of contract which is heavily tilted in favour of the seller and the consumer is given no real choice in this regard. This is why in common law jurisdictions the courts have laid down certain principles or extra conditions which a standard form of contract has to abide by for it to be enforceable viz.,:

  1. Sufficient notice: This principle requires that the major and specially the unusual terms in a contract should be displayed in a sufficiently highlighted manner so that a reasonable consumer is not likely to miss these unusual terms.[6]
  2. Fundamental breach of contract: If the contract is so drafted that it would impose additional obligations on the consumer or restrict the liability and obligations of the seller in such a way that it would result in breaching any of the fundamental or main terms or obligations that one expects in such a contract, then such a contract may not be enforceable.[7]
  3. Exclusion of unreasonable terms: Another type of protection that is available to consumers is the principle which seeks to exclude unreasonable terms from a contract i.e. a term which would defeat the very purpose of the contract or if it is repugnant to the public policy.[8]

Relying on the above principles of standard form contracts, it is possible to at least argue that highly strict and limiting terms which are put into a long verbose standard form contract which backs the Technology Protection Measures on a protected software may not be entirely enforceable, in which case the alleged consent of the consumer for such DRMs gets negated and the software with all its DRM limitations could be considered as ‘defective’.

From the discussion above it is clear that the nature of online transactions and digital goods presents certain unique problems for the legal regime which seeks to protect consumer rights. The law needs to be amended to take into account the unique circumstances of this fledging marketplace that exists online and ensure that the legal regime is fully capable of facing the challenges thrown up by e-commerce. One of the initiatives in this regard is the effort by Consumers International to include amendments in the Model United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection to include various provisions which deal with the online marketplace and its unique challenges as well as issues relating to access to knowledge (A2K). Perhaps it is time for the establishment in India to also take this into account and bring our quarter of a century old consumer protection legislation in line with the digital age.

[1]. http://goo.gl/Mh74vB

[2]. http://goo.gl/By5x3i

[3]. Tata Consultancy Services v. State of Andhra Pradesh, 5 November, 2004, available at http://goo.gl/Bn7KRp

[4]. http://goo.gl/lMdoI


[6]. Henderson & others v. Stevenson, 1875 2 R (HL) 71, Interfoto Picture Library Ltd v. Stiletto Visual Programmes Ltd. [1988] 1 All ER 348.

[7]. Harbutt's "Plasticine" Ltd. v. Wayne Tank and Pump Co Ltd [1970] 1 QB 447.

[8]. Lily White v. R. Mannuswami, AIR 1966 Mad.13.

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