In October 2020, Eva De Bleeker was appointed State Secretary for the Budget and Consumer Protection. As an advocate for consumers, she’s responsible for informing them about their rights, duties, and responsibilities and takes action when those rights are violated. We talked to her about the opportunities and challenges of digitalization and her role in this digital context.
Today, Eva strives for open communication between all stakeholders and clear boundaries within which they can operate. In this way, consumers as well as producers can really reap the benefits of the digital revolution. At the same time, Eva wants to raise awareness among all parties about their rights, duties, and responsibilities on the Internet. Here too, clarity and transparency are paramount.
Eva, what does your role as State Secretary for Consumer Protection entail?
“As State Secretary for Consumer Protection, I am responsible for protecting the fundamental rights of consumers. Whenever those rights are not respected, I have to act decisively and efficiently. But my responsibilities stretch beyond the consumer as well: I have to set the boundaries within which producers operate and remind them of their duties and responsibilities to consumers. That's why communication is crucial: consumers, producers, governments, and other organizations need to sit down together to identify problems and work out solutions.”
How do you approach these objectives in your policy?
“My policy is built on two twin pillars: support and information. On the one hand, we are working on an online platform where consumers can leave questions and complaints. On the other hand, we want to educate consumers about the dangers of digitalization, in particular pitfalls such as online fraud, phishing, pyramid schemes, affiliate marketing, drop shipping, influencer marketing, and the like. To do this, we are organizing school tours, collaborating with young influencers, launching awareness campaigns...”
Can you give a concrete example of a recent initiative?
“Not long ago, the online presence of fraudulent locksmiths was a major problem. When consumers searched for a locksmith on Google, the scammers would always end up at the top of the search engine results page. To prevent them from appearing there, we collaborated closely with Google to put a hold on their advertising. Today, we use a system with accredited certificates to support beneficent locksmiths and protect consumers against scammers.”
That's a pretty far-reaching example. How far can consumer protection actually go?
“I think we should always get around the table with all parties, whether they are individual consumers or large corporations like Google and Facebook. I would like to move towards a constructive non-conflict model where all stakeholders engage in dialogue and look for the best solutions together.”
How has the digital revolution changed consumer protection?
“The online world has become an essential part of our daily lives. We simply cannot deny the impact of the digital revolution on our society. The Internet offers a wide range of opportunities for consumers, but also brings along a number of risks. Digitalization is not necessarily a threat, as long as we can operate and interact within predefined frameworks with clear terms of agreement.”
What risks are you referring to?
“I believe two groups in particular are vulnerable today: young people and the elderly. While the first group is up to speed with all the changes, they are still too careless with their data or privacy. Older people, on the other hand, do not always make use of their full digital potential, often out of fear or ignorance. As a result, they are also missing out on unique opportunities. And on top of that, they are more likely to be the victim of scammers.”
How do you aim to protect those two groups in particular?
“It's important to tailor existing consumer protection tools to these different groups. Young people are best reached online, for example through influencer campaigns on social media. Actually, it would be a great idea to integrate digitalization into their curriculum, so that they learn their rights and duties on the Internet from a young age. Older people, in turn, can be reached with TV reports or news items.”
How is consumer protection currently faring in Belgium?
“European legislation is already quite advanced compared to other parts of the world. We are fully aware of the rapidly changing nature of digitalization. Therefore, we will always lag a bit behind. In order to act fast, we need to adapt our frameworks to this rapid evolution. While laws will always be essential in the long term to regulate the entire operating field, other short-term solutions like charters are being adopted more and more these days.”
How can we tackle gray areas like influencer marketing?
“Those are very difficult to regulate. I think the solution again lies in dialogue between the different parties involved to discuss these matters and consider effective solutions.”
We’ve talked a lot about consumers, but what about producers? Where do their responsibilities lie?
“Consumers, of course, are not solely responsible for protecting their rights. The producer must also do his part. Think of cookies and consent, for example. It is also in the interest of producers to be mindful of protecting their consumers and to manage their data and privacy well. They have to inform consumers sufficiently and guarantee a safe online environment. Today, some companies are taking a pioneering role in this quest for protection. This can benefit their image in the long run.”
What major challenges does the future hold?
“The whole system of consumer protection has changed a lot in the last decades. I feel that since COVID-19, we've plunged into the digital environment like never before. Yet not everyone knows their rights on the Internet or knows where to go with questions and complaints. We need to support our consumers and provide them with up-to-date information in order to protect them.”
Does the growing imbalance between consumers and data brokers worry you?
“The whole data matter is currently being dealt with extensively at the European level, for example with laws against excessive monopolization. This is a very tricky issue on the border of several gray areas. Don’t get me wrong: I think these companies should be able to operate, I am certainly not against them. But once again, constructive dialogue is indispensable to create frameworks and guarantee optimal protection.”
Do you think a digital utopia is possible in the future?
“I am an optimist: I believe that digitalization offers many opportunities in terms of speed, range, and information. But I am also realistic: organization and regulation are essential to create value. It is all about mutual trust. Concrete frameworks are necessary to gain this trust, maintain it, and allow it to flourish in a safe and efficient environment for everyone.”