Consumers are the largest economic group, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Yet, they are the only group whose views are often not heard. — John F Kennedy (March 15, 1962)
The World Consumer Rights Day, on March 15, is an occasion for celebration and solidarity within the international consumer movement. It is observed for promoting the basic rights of all consumers, demanding that those rights be respected and protected, and protesting about market abuses and social injustices, which undermine them.
Every year, the consumer movement marks this day with a specific theme. The theme for 2019 is ‘Trusted Smart Products.’ A smart product is a device that can connect, share and interact with its user and other devices. Smart products connect to each other and to the internet via different connections like 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi. The most popular consumer smart products are smartphones, gaming consoles, TVs and wearable health trackers.
Importance of Smart Products
These smart devices are capable of collecting and analysing user data, and transmitting it to other connected devices in a network. A network of smart products is known as the Internet of Things. Smart products offer consumers the promise of convenience, efficiency and personalised services.
Smartphones are one of the most popular smart devices. In addition to making calls and texting, they can monitor the user’s movements, locations and even health. They can act as the central hub connecting the owner to other smart devices such as computers, printers, speakers and even home security systems.
Other than smartphones, other important smart devices include smart home security systems and smart health monitors. For example, fitness trackers monitor users’ activity levels, sleep pattern and heart rate helping them get a better understanding of their health. In homes, smart security systems comprising wireless cameras, locks and motion sensors can record any unusual activity and send alerts to the owner.
Ensuring affordability, safety and security of smart devices that connect to the internet and to each other is important for consumers. This is especially so due to the huge numbers involved. As per the data available, it is estimated that there are 23.1 billion smart devices in the world, outnumbering people three to one. There are nearly 4 billion smartphone connections, double the figure three years ago.
It is predicted that by 2025, 72% of internet users will be accessing the internet exclusively via mobile. Around half of these new users will come from the developing world — China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan.
As access to smart devices and products increases along with their importance to humankind, it is important that we highlight what consumers want and need from a connected world; and how important it is to put human beings at the heart of the development of these digital products and services. It is hoped that the emergence of smart technology will bring many opportunities for consumers – new services, more responsive products, greater convenience and better choice.
The use of smart products is the need for the future. Many smart products offer tailored solutions for people with disabilities. The day is not far when smartwatches for people with sight-loss will vibrate when the user receives an email and then translate the email into Braille on the watch face or read out the email to the person. Similarly, smart light bulbs connected to a doorbell or a phone could alert a deaf person when the phone is ringing or when someone is at the door.
The possibilities are limitless. It is for the human imagination to find uses of devices, which can interact with each other and with the user to make her life efficient and easy.
As with any good thing, there are certain challenges with respect to the ability of products to connect and share with the user and other devices. The significant causes for concern include lack of security and privacy; and meaningful choice over how we use them. There is also a need for improved clarity about who is responsible when things go wrong.
Another major issue is lack of access to these devices, with millions of people globally locked out of this new technology either due to unavailability or due to high charges. Quite a few governments across the world have introduced measures like slashing duties and taxes to make smart devices accessible and affordable. However, the cost of data still represents a major barrier.
Smart products are all a part of a large connected system and network. Vulnerability in any part can compromise the entire system in addition to network and service disruption. Unsecure smart devices can also put consumer safety directly at risk.
A significant data privacy risk arises from devices being able to communicate with each other and transfer data automatically to third parties. This data may be harmless in individual formats. Once collected or collated, it could reveal an accurate knowledge of an individual resulting in increased traceability and harm profiling.
A lack of transparency can also create fear in the minds of consumers. Moreover, not having the right pre-purchase information about how devices collect and use data may lead to personal information being collected used and disclosed.
Role of Regulators
Smart products with their ability to connect, share and interact with the user and other devices are an instrument of change in the lives of all of us. It is the next step towards use of technology to improving humankind. Along with the benefits they bring, there is a need to look into issues of security, privacy and meaningful choice.
It is the duty of the regulatory authorities across the world to ensure that the emergence of smart technology brings adequate opportunities to public by enabling access to new services, more responsive products, greater convenience and choice.
(The author is Secretary, Consumer Affairs, Government of Telangana)