E-tailers risk breaking new law

As a new law comes into force regulating e-tailers in the UK, evidence suggests that many businesses may fall foul of it because they are unprepared

UK businesses who have failed to act on new e-commerce regulations that come into force on Wednesday could find themselves open to prosecution unless they take urgent steps to change their online operations.

The regulations set strict rules for UK businesses who advertise or sell goods via a Web site, mobile phone or through email.

Under the new law, a Web site must (among other things):

  • Acknowledge receipt of an order electronically and without undue delay.
  • Allow simple means which allow the customer to correct errors prior to placing the order.
  • Highlight the languages offered for inclusion in the contract.
  • Explain the different technical steps required to conclude the contract.
  • Confirm whether the contract will be filed and how it will be accessible.

There is evidence to suggest that many businesses are unprepared for the new regulations, with some blaming the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for failing to publicise the changes properly.

Andrew Rigby, head of technology and e-commerce in the City office of Addleshaw Booth & Co, said: "Businesses with an online presence or who provide any form of online service have not been sufficiently briefed and will urgently need to reconsider how they operate their Web sites to ensure they are compliant. If they don't, they are likely to face action by the enforcement authorities who will be able to apply to the courts for orders to stop infringing Web sites from being non-compliant."

A spokesman for the DTI said: "Over the last 18 months we have carried out two extensive consultations on the approach to and implementation of the new e-commerce regulations. We received many detailed responses that helped us address concerns and shape the current regulations.

"We have also produced guidance particularly aimed at small and online businesses," he added. "The guidance was available from us as soon as the regulations were laid in Parliament and also available via our updated Web site."

The DTI believes the regulations will encourage greater use of e-commerce by breaking down barriers across Europe and boosting consumer confidence.

Meanwhile, the new regulations have also come under fire for failing to address the thorny issue of unsolicited email. Anti-spam specialist Brightmail claims the UK government has failed to protect consumers from the mass of spam flooding inboxes every day. It wanted the E-commerce Regulations to protect email users from daily attacks of 'get-rich-quick' scams and pornography.

However, the regulations simply state that the government "believes that existing industry self-regulation and codes of conduct already provide recipients of unsolicited commercial communication... with effective protection."

Francois Lavaste, Brightmail's European VP, said: "We need legislation... to clearly lay out acceptable and unacceptable methods of operation. Only legislation backed up by a technology solution will defeat spam, as most spammers operate outside of the law."

He added: "The government has left the industry to regulate itself and mandated service providers to clearly label their commercial email. Neither of these measures offer any protection from spam to the email user."

Read a full analysis of the new laws at ZDNet UK Tech Update.

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