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EU consumer law to defy industry opposition

Industry is overreacting to legislation that would allow consumers to rely on local laws in the event of a dispute, say legal experts

Efforts by industry to lobby against proposed EC legislation which they say could threaten the future of e-commerce in Europe, are likely to fail, according legal experts.

The legislation in question is the Rome II treaty -- now in draft form -- which if adopted would allow anybody buying online goods in the EU to have the protection of local consumer law, rather than having to rely on the law of the country where the e-vendor is based. The Brussels Convention prepared the ground for this, last year, by making it possible for consumers to take legal action against a vendor in a court in their own country.

Members of the Rome II Group -- comprised of European players in the Internet industry -- will meet in Brussels later this month to pressurise the EC into granting a public hearing for the proposed Rome II treaty.

Site operators are opposed to draft legislation that would require their content, products and any claims against them to be open to legal scrutiny in every member state of the European Union.

But legal experts warn that the proposal has been on the table for over a year, and think it unlikely the Commission will bow to industry pressure. "It's inevitable the regulation will go through in the same way that the Brussels Convention did," said Robin Bynoe, partner at city law firm Charles Russell.

While the EU operates on the principle of being pro-consumer, European e-commerce companies are concerned by the prospect of having to answer to foreign consumer protection laws, which can vary greatly between different parts of Europe. In Germany, for example, it is illegal to sell products as part of a two-for-one offer.

But e-vendors may be making a mountain out of a molehill, as legal experts believe that in practice the regulation will be inapplicable for Internet purchases. "It's a storm in a teacup as this regulation will only apply to consumers, and will not be used for business to business transactions," said Bynoe. "There is little risk of a seller ending up in a foreign court, as in practice, people will not be buying large value items over the Internet."

The Rome II treaty, likely to be enforced by the end of the year, will inevitably place pressure on European governments to harmonise their consumer laws.

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