Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ameriprise Financial Services - The Best Personal Financial Adviser

In today's growing consumer market, where one has plethora of options to choose from for almost all goods and services, many companies have managed to maintain their goodwill and win the rat race with a simple rule - consumer is the king!

Some companies have carved their niche with prompt and accurate customer services and support system. A leading name among financial advisory services today is - Ameriprise Financial Services or the AFS.

Ameriprise Financial Services initiated as a small company from a local office, and have managed to expand a fortune. They are best known for their online financial advisory services and personal consultation.

Their strategy for the same is to use a handy advisor locator. The best part of using this locator is that you do not need to give any personal details. On the company's web portal simply key in your zip code. The locator would automatically supply a list of Ameriprise Financial Services Advisors with in your vicinity. Be rest assured that you won't be contacted unless & until you yourself opt to call an agent.

Besides the regular functions of the web portals, Ameriprise Financial Services' website offers enormous wealth of information on all aspects regarding financial planning. An individual's financial planning primarily depends on their budget and the financial requirements. However, at the end financial planning remains one's personal decision. Yet, all of us need to have a clear understanding of our goals from the same.

The personal advisors at Ameriprise Financial Services understand these basics and hence their website details the very core information like:

i. The fundamentals of investment
ii. Tips for paperwork
iii. Information that we must put forward before the advisor to make the best of his services. This way he or she would give you the best possible recommendations for your personalized financial planning needs.

How the Ameriprise Financial Services' Advisor works?

Ameriprise Financial Services' personal financial planner initially offers a free consultation session. Here, he or she would help you identify your financial goals. He or she would present before you the realistic & concrete picture of your current scenario and your actual needs. That is your financial stand today and what it requires to meet what you want.

In the following sessions, the advisors would help you synchronize the goals, that is prioritizing the needs & wants. He or she would then prepare the information you need. Next, He or she would present this information in a way that it clarifies all your doubts. Hence the advisor would help you understand the best possible ways to achieve your financial goals.

Ameriprise Financial Services advisors are always there for you in order to answer your questions. Yet, they are just advisors and they would leave the final decisions for the client or customer.

Finally a written plan would be developed. As per your requisites and goals it would also be modified until completion.

That is not all. You advisor would also help you implement the plan with regular meetings. Ensuring that the customer stays on the track to achieve their financial objectives and goals, they would guide you through the required changes as well.

What are the other services provided by Ameriprise Financial Services?

1. Insurance

Ameriprise Financial Services also deals with insurance. They provide:

i. Life Insurance
ii. Health Insurance
iii. Disability Insurance
iv. Long Term Care Insurance
v. Home Insurance
vi. Auto Insurance

2. Banking & Lending Agency

Ameriprise Financial Services is also an efficient banking & lending agency so they help you through money management & financial planning in the practical terms.

3. Investment Products
Ameriprise Financial Services' investment products include the following:
i. IRAs
ii. Annuities
iii. Stocks
iv. Bonds
v. Mutual Funds

This implies that the clients could easily diversify the portfolios & try varied types of investments during working with the advisors

UBS Financial Services - What Do They Do?

UBS Financial Services is a global company that provides a full range of financial services to individual clients and companies all over the world. In an increasingly globalized world economy that the kind of international expertise that UBS Financial Services can offer is a distinct advantage to all types of client that need to manage their wealth. UBS offers a service that reflects the global nature of financial markets.

UBS Financial Services has offices on every continent. It operates in Switzerland, the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. If even this comprehensive network does not put you near a branch of UBS Financial Services you can use the banking online service. UBS Financial Services online banking offers the convenience of making decisions from the comfort of your own home and provides the same range of wealth management and investment services.

Individual customers can benefit from a complete range of financial services. UBS Financial Services offers annuities,401K plans, securities, mutual funds, fund management, wealth management, life and health insurance programs and trust funds. In addition UBS Financial Services can provide an attorney network, Roth IRA accounts, estate planning, account management, retirement distribution analysis, educational funds and fund management and lines of credit. In other word UBS Financial Services offers all the services you would expect to find in a worldwide financial service.

For businesses of all sizes UBS Financial Services offers a comprehensive range of services. UBS Financial Services can provide a customized package consisting of employee stock ownership management, retirement services, corporate cash management, consulting and a global expansion option. Whatever size of business you run UBS Financial Services has something to offer.

If your business already operates globally then UBS Financial services can offer specialized services including rates and currency calculators, equities, fixed income, investment options and help with employee benefit and retirement packages

Non-profit agencies can benefit from UBS Financial Services because the company is sensitive to the specialist needs of this sector. UBS Financial Services is aware of the regulations that effect the disbursement of funds in the non-profit sector. Government agencies, banks and other other lending agencies work with UBS Financial Services enabling the company to develop a unique expertise in this field that can benefit large or small non-profit agencies.

UBS Financial Services operates a specialised online trading system that allows the client to input trades directly. A client who needs advice can work with a financial advisor to develop a portfolio of investments using the expert knowledge of UBS Financial Services. Both companies and individuals can take advantage of this service. This can be done in one of two ways. A brokerage account can have a flat rate fee on each trade or can be charged on the assets in the account. An individual or company that have a high number of trades will benefit from the second type of fee structure if they keep an steady balance in their asset account.

Financial Services Help Manage Money

Financial Services #1 Wealth Management

Frequently individuals who are wealthy need financial services in order to manage their money and stay wealthy. Many wealthy individuals who do not use financial services for wealth management see their money slipping out the window. However, those who use wealth management financial services not only maintain their wealth and enjoy it, but also see it increase.

Financial Services #2 Investment Banking

Investment banking is another offering of financial services that many individuals enjoy. This is because investment banking financial services focus on creating capital through client investments.

Financial Services #3 Asset Management

Financial services offer asset management for individuals who cannot or prefer not to manage their own assets in the form of cash, property, bonds, and stocks. Fortunately, financial services are able to handle asset management competently.

Financial Services #4 Business Banking Services

Business banking financial services are also an option for businesses that need help in managing accounts, income, payments, loans, and any other types of financial services needed. Business banking services are a very important part of the financial services sector.

If you are interested in financial services helping you manage your wealth, assets, make investments for you, or manage your business banking, and then you should contact several financial services providers in order to compare services and fees so you can find the one that is best for you.

Monday, August 6, 2012

CI to contribute to revision of UN’s consumer protection guidelines

Indrani Thuraisingham, Head of CI Office for Asia Pacific and the Middle East, reports on activities from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

I was very pleased to be part of CI’s delegation to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) recently. 

This was an important moment for consumer rights - when CI was named to give input into the revision of the UN’s Guidelines on Consumer Protection (UNGCP).

The decision to revise the guidelines was the major outcome of the UNCTAD Ad Hoc Expert Meeting on Consumer Protection: The interface between competition and consumer policies. Its proposals are to be tabled at the General Assembly in July 2014. 

The CI delegation to UNCTAD included myself as the head of the Asia Pacific and Middle East Regional Office and lead on the global coordination of CI’s Consumer Justice and Protection priority programme; Jeremy Malcolm who leads CI’s Consumers in the Digital Age priority programme; and Robin Simpson, CI’s senior policy officer from London who spoke on financial services, another of CI’s priority programme areas. 

We were accompanied by Connie Lau, retiring CEO of the Hong Kong Consumer Council who gave the key note address; and Pradeep Mehta from CI member CUTS India.

A number of ideas for areas in which the Guidelines could be improved were discussed, including the need to strengthen enforcement activities, and the addition of provisions on financial services, energy, consumer representation, and access to knowledge. 

CI also highlighted the need to add “access to basic needs” as part of the legitimate needs in Article 3 of the Guidelines as well as to have a clear definition of ”consumer” in terms of addressing the needs of poor and vulnerable consumers.
The agreed conclusions of the meeting specify that UNCTAD is to collaborate with CI, as well as with other relevant bodies such as the OECD, in developing the content of potential revisions.  

To this end, the next step in this process will be for CI to consult with its members on the areas that should be covered and to develop some suggested text for submission to UNCTAD that will be tabled at the upcoming 13th Intergovernmental Group of Experts (IGE) meeting in July 2013 during which the process of negotiations will begin and be approved by July 2014.

This is an exciting time. It means that all CI members will have the opportunity to comment and bring their experience in consumer rights to bear on the Guidelines. I for one look forward to being a part of this important step for consumer rights.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

UN’s consumer protection guidelines must reflect the digital age

CI’s Jeremy Malcolm looks at why it’s imperative that the UNGCP include the rights of consumers in the digital age.

When the United Nation Guidelines on Consumer Protection (UNGCP) were last amended, the iPod had not yet been invented, Wikipedia would not exist for another couple of years (nor Facebook for another five), and a new PC had one-eighth as much memory as a modern smartphone.

This means that, remarkably, there is no global standard or benchmark that deals directly with the impact of the digital age on consumers.

Here's why this matters:

Say that when signing up to a legal music download service, a link to its terms and conditions of use is given. If you follow the link, you find 20 pages of small text, including a condition prohibiting you from making copies of the music you download, and another reserving the site’s right to change the terms and conditions without notice to you. 

You skim through the first few pages of this agreement and then proceed to sign up and pay your subscription.

Then, you download a few songs, and then copy them from your computer to your portable music player. 

Frustratingly, it seems that they are encrypted, but luckily you find a small programme online that you use to strip this encryption off, so that you can enjoy your music on the go.

Some days later, the site changes so that files are no longer downloadable, but can only be streamed live. This means that you can no longer play new downloads on your music player.

Some of the questions that arise are:
  1. Are you bound by the terms and conditions (T&Cs), even if you didn't read all of them?
  2. Are you allowed to copy songs that you purchased as a download onto your music player?
  3. If so, are you also entitled to remove the encryption from the music files?
  4. Is the site entitled to switch from a download to a streaming service?
The answers will of course depend on consumer law in your country. 

We believe that any modern consumer law should answer those questions as follows:
  1. You should only be bound by the T&Cs if they were adequately brought to your attention - important terms can't be buried in 20 pages of small text.
  2. Yes, you should be able to copy music that you have purchased online.
  3. Yes, you should be able to de-encrypt if your purpose in doing so is simply to enable you to listen to the music.
  4. No, the site should not switch its service without offering you a refund.
Through our Consumers in the digital age programme, we’re pushing for a global benchmark so that such consumer rights are seen as the international standard.   

That’s why we think that it’s about time that the UNGCP were updated for the digital age, to protect consumers in situations like those outlined above, and in many other novel situations involving digital goods and services, consumers as creators, and online communications.

This doesn't mean that the UNGCP are no longer working - on the contrary, they have stood up very well over the years; a testament to the hard work that went into developing them to begin with. But there are some areas that they don't clearly cover, and we have a plan to fill those gaps.

Whilst the
UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has only recently signalled its intention to review the UNGCP, CI is well ahead of the game. 

We have already come up with a set of proposed amendments to cover the rights of consumers in the digital age. These were developed by a CI member working group that was convened in January 2011 and released its final draft for a three-month public comment period in June the same year.

Amongst the proposed amendments, which are shown in their entirety at
http://A2Knetwork.org/guidelines, are provisions that would:
  • Prevent the removal of functions from digital products or services after purchase
  • Support consumer access to and fair use of copyright works
  • Set minimum standards for the privacy of consumers online
  • Require product safety information and standards to be made available online
CI is now proceeding to supplement these suggested amendments with national level research, to demonstrate why they are important, and how they reflect some emerging best practices around the world. This research is being conducted by our members and partners in India, Brazil and South Africa, with smaller case studies having been contributed from South Korea and Canada.

The next step will be to integrate these proposals, along with other amendments that CI is still developing
(such as on financial services), into the draft text that will be tabled before UNCTAD's members for consideration at their next meeting in mid 2013.
If we are fortunate, the UNGCP will soon be at the forefront of modern consumer policy again, providing a useful benchmark for policy makers around the world.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Financial services on the agenda at UNCTAD

Financial services—it’s complicated. And that’s why we need to ensure consumers are protected.  CI’s Robin Simpson urges inclusion of financial services in the UN’s Guidelines on Consumer Protection. 

At the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) meeting in Geneva recently, CI made the case for inclusion of financial services in the Guidelines on Consumer Protection (UNGCP), including:

  • universal access to basic financial services;
  • better design and disclosure of information;
  • mandatory requirements for comprehensibility of financial products; and
  • representation of consumer interests in the governance of the sector, both regulation and redress.
 We believe that, where states have bailed out ailing banks, competition enquiries should be carried out to ascertain whether these assistance packages have increased concentration. This is sensitive territory for a conference whose agenda was dominated by competition issues.

We also called for measures to guarantee stability of deposits stronger than the diluted provisions that were included in the G20/OECD high level principles that we found too limited.

There was a strong measure of agreement in the hall that FS is not, or no longer, solely a rich country issue. Indeed, one of the encouraging aspects of the present troubled times is the emergence of innovative services such as branchless banking in developing countries, whose consumers report savings ratios far in excess of those of the OECD countries, between 30-40% of household income.

As CI board member Connie Lau of the Hong Kong Consumer Council pointed out, these dwarf the puny rates to be found in the first decade of this century in the US where some estimates show a negative rate in some years. 

Our colleague Sothi Racahagan from Malaysia made a clarion call for stronger regulatory action and Phil Evans from the UK Competition Commission made the strong case on behavioural grounds for FS not being treated like any other sector.

Complex products with long-term effects, the impacts of which will not be known for years to come, all add up to a dangerous cocktail of ingredients that require far stronger measures than we have seen so far.

Maybe inclusion of FS in the UNGCP will make some much-needed changes a reality.

Now for the hard part.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The planet needs a silver-bullet solution, but Rio wasn’t it

CI’s Luis Flores reflects on the results of the Rio+20 Summit and what they mean for consumers.

Trying to solve the world’s most pressing and complex environmental and social problems by convening the very governments stuck in gridlock the last 20 years was never going to be a silver-bullet solution.

And after Rio+20 it is clear that an old-style UN conference with member countries negotiating a ‘consensus’ agreement is no longer the ideal medium for change.

However, despite the initial dismay over the results of the Summit, there was cause for at least a somewhat sedated celebration for the consumer rights movement.

First, sustainable consumption and production (SCP) was acknowledged as a fundamental issue. The so-called 'ten year framework of programmes' that will support governments developing national and regional programmes on SCP was also endorsed by governments on a voluntary basis.

It will be further developed in this year's negotiations at the UN General Assembly. The Rio agreement also specifically links sustainable consumption to the Sustainable Development Goals which will be the subject of more work under the UN framework.

Determined to avoid another Copenhagen and an evident failure of the environmental multilateral system, the government negotiators at Rio+20 wanted above all to be able to come out with a completed agreement and that is exactly what they did at the end of the process.

But, given the results and the lack of ambition of the official outcome document, which had been negotiated over the last nine months and finalised just before the start of the Summit, many were unhappy.

It is not necessary to understand the economics of development in great detail to have a view on the case for urgent action. Sustainability is needed now.

The question is no longer whether unsustainable growth is contributing to the global crisis or not, but how vast and irreversible the damages are going to be.

In the coming years, the entire world will have to step into a transition stage leading to real sustainable development; therefore, joint and coordinated action is necessary.

Isolated initiatives will not be enough, and neither will the sustainable purchasing decisions of the enlightened few. Governments will need to act; and companies will need to stop hiding behind perceived consumer inertia as an excuse for inaction.

International cooperation will have to put less emphasis on what a fair distribution of responsibilities should be, and more stress on the actions that – if undertaken as a joint endeavour – will neutralize negative effects on people’s lives and livelihood.

All of the public awareness that we have experienced recently should give us enough hope to continue with our efforts. Indeed, when surveyed, an increasing number of consumers express a desire to consume ‘green’ – but lack the access to do so.

For our part, CI is currently reviewing our work on sustainable consumption in order to identify where we, as a network of more than 240 consumer organisations in 115 countries, can best contribute to this global challenge. We hope to have the results in time for a renewed effort at the start of 2013.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Supermarket investigation reveals a false choice

Zoya Sheftalovich and Elise Dalley of CHOICE, Australia, discuss the pressure that big supermarkets place on their suppliers – and what this means for consumers. 

Australia has a highly-concentrated supermarket sector. Our two big players, Coles and Woolworths, control more than 70% of the market. 

Anecdotally, CHOICE had been hearing for a while that relationships between the supermarkets and their suppliers and manufacturers were strained. People were ringing us to complain of their favourite products disappearing from supermarkets, and we became aware of a trend – seemingly successful product lines were being squeezed off the shelves by home brand products.

As a consumer watchdog, there was some reticence in the office about us looking into these reports – surely supermarkets increasing their home brand product lines would be beneficial to consumers, as long as these cheaper products provided good value and quality for consumers. But our members were increasingly upset, and we knew we had to investigate.

Extreme tactics

After asking our members to tell us about products they had noticed disappearing off the shelves, we compiled a list of dozens. We then got on the phone, calling manufacturers for several days.

We heard the same story again and again: yes, product lines had been deleted, with little or no notice, and for seemingly no reason. Yes, tactics leading up to the deletion had been extreme. No, I won’t go on the record. No, I can’t talk to you in more detail. No, you can’t use my name. I need the supermarkets, and I cannot afford to antagonise them.

And it was not just small manufacturers that were feeling the pain. Several large-scale operators spoke obliquely about the harsh Australian grocery market, but clammed up when it came to giving details.

But perseverance paid off, and several sources finally agreed to tell us their stories off the record. One even agreed to have his name put to his allegations.
What we heard was terrible in its implications for manufacturers and suppliers, but was also detrimental to consumers – the supermarkets seemingly had no qualms about using their buying power to push suppliers to the brink, and the number of people we spoke to who were either on the precipice of losing their businesses, or had already done so, was frightening. The competition from the supermarkets was wiping out the competition altogether.

Worrying signs

From demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars for marketing, to setting unrealistic sales targets, to hiding products behind vertical columns in store and releasing their own, home brand products in deceptively similar packaging, the tactics used by the supermarkets were worrying.

Was this what consumers wanted? We didn’t think so.

When we published our series of investigations looking at the situation on the shelves, the copycat tactics of home brand products, and the emerging issue of incognito home brand wine, the response was resounding. We received messages of support from a huge number of our members.

And over a thousand people voted in our poll for the best (or is it worst?) copycat product. The winner?  Coles home brand sunscreen, which came in a tube that looked uncannily like the one put out by Australia’s national cancer NGO, the Cancer Council, the proceeds of which go to cancer research.

When two supermarkets control such a large share of the grocery market, no product is safe, and the consumer is not always king.

You can read the full details of our supermarket investigation here: http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/supermarkets

Friday, June 22, 2012

The dark side of digital

Lucy Hopkins from Consumer Focus asks us to consider the potential pitfalls for consumers in the internet era, and how regulators can pre-empt the dangers.

Imagine a world where a company can refuse you a loan because one of your friends on Facebook has a bad credit rating.

Imagine you get worse deals than others when buying online because a company has tracked your search patterns and knows that you’re not much of a bargain hunter.

Imagine you leave negative comments for a company on a review site and someone starts posting malicious information about you online which spreads like wildfire, leading to you losing your job.

These are just some of the problems that an increasing number of people could be facing in the digital age.

This is not to say that digital advances are a bad thing. Widespread access to the internet and the tools and applications that have been built on it has brought many benefits—such as increased access to information, transparency, convenience and new means of communication—to millions of people.

But there has been less focus on what potential risks and challenges will emerge from how providers will deploy these technologies. Consumer Focus’ review of digital downsides 'All that's digital isn't gold: The challenges and risks of the digital age,' (pdf) aims to do just that.

It covers issues from new web monopolies and online reputation management to unfair terms of data sharing and biased search engine results.

The aim of highlighting these and other detriments is to prompt debate and persuade those who are in a position to pre-empt and prevent these (regulators, enforcers, consumer groups and companies that operate in this area) to understand and respond to these consumer  issues now before they become widespread problems.

Reviewing these downsides, it becomes clear that there is not one, single way of addressing or mitigating their effects. The rapid pace of change in the digital world moves faster than traditional regulatory approaches are typically able to, meaning classic responses might not always be suitable for the problems that are emerging.

This fast pace and unpredictable nature of change also makes it difficult to anticipate problems and plan responses.

So regulators, and other bodies working in the consumer interest, will need to start to consider how they can be more agile in order to respond to the challenges these detriments will present to our traditional regulatory frameworks.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Our message on financial services attracts high-level crowd in US capital

After CI’s latest event on financial consumer protection, Justin Macmullan takes stock of the progress being made and the challenges ahead.

“What progress has been made” was the big question being asked by the 80 or so delegates at a one-day conference on financial consumer protection (FCP) coordinated by Consumers International and the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue on 6 June in Washington.

The answers came from an impressive line up of speakers from the Mexican presidency of the G20, the Financial Stability Board, the OECD, the World Bank and officials from the US, Canada and the EU – a sure sign that CI is attracting the attention of the big players in FCP.

The conference was opened by David Vladeck from the US Federal Trade Commission and Nicholas Rathod from the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who set the scene with current examples of what US agencies are doing to protect consumers of financial services.

The conference then moved on to the three main sessions. The first session assessed progress in the G20 process - something that CI is closely involved with, having played an instrumental part in getting it off the ground in 2010.

Two years after the launch of that campaign a lot has been achieved including a new set of international principles, and proposals for a new international organisation (FinCoNet) to support the development of financial consumer protection around the world.

Juan Manual Valle spoke for the Mexican government which holds the G20 presidency this year and received considerable praise for Mexico’s openness to work with consumer organisations and their efforts to link the G20’s work on financial inclusion with consumer protection.  

However, challenges remain. Clear guidelines need to be developed on how the principles should be implemented and plans for how their implementation is working will be reviewed.  FinCoNet also needs to be established with the resources and mandate to do an effective job.

The next session moved the debate from the international to the regional and national. With major changes in European and US financial regulation over the last two years, there was a lot to discuss. What was striking was how common many of the challenges were – top of the list being the need to establish an effective organisation with a clear mandate and focus on financial consumer protection and appropriate tools to do the job.

The final session took on the issue of mobile banking – a development that is already well established in some countries and is about to take off in many others. Here there was an interesting debate around how to protect consumers’ security, privacy and rights whilst not stifling innovation. A question of balance, or smart regulation, that will no doubt continue as the technology spreads from one country to another.

What was clear from all the discussions was the value in sharing examples and experiences between countries and the essential role that consumer organisations have in ensuring consumers views are heard in these debates.

CI is uniquely positioned to deliver on both these counts and will be continuing our work on FCP with our international membership.

Financial services is a priority programme for CI as part of the Your Rights, Our Mission | Strategy 2015.

A conference programme (pdf) and full list of speakers (pdf) is also available.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Can reading to children really be against the law?

Despite some ridiculous applications of IP law, CI’s Jeremy Malcolm sees a chink of light in stakeholder discussions on copyright usage. 

Image by Ryan Lobo under Creative Commons attribution licence

Copyright law is a balance between the interests of creators and those of consumers.

Creators expect to be able to earn a living from their work, which usually involves selling or licensing the right to reproduce or publicly perform it, and copyright makes this possible.

At the same time, copyright allows consumers to make use of works in various ways that do not amount to an economic activity, including private uses such as singing a song in the shower, reading books to children, and copying a CD onto your portable music player.

At least, it does so in theory. In practice, some of these private uses have come under threat, often due to changes in technology.  

Mercifully, singing in the shower is still OK; but uploading a video of yourself singing to YouTube is a copyright infringement. Reading to your children is fine, but it was recently revealed that in Belgium, public libraries in which volunteers read story books to children are being charged money for that privilege. And copying a CD onto your portable music player, along with similar acts of format shifting, is still illegal in many countries of the world.

It is issues like these that prompted Consumers International, in partnership with BEUC(the European consumers association) and Copyright for Creativity (a joint industry and consumer initiative) to hold a meeting in the library of the European Parliament, hosted by Dutch MEP Mariette Schaake.  

The objective was to discuss these issues with copyright owners and MEPs, and to work towards agreement on short-term solutions that could be put in place while we wait for the law to catch up. Reflecting this, we titled the meeting “I Want it Now!: Creators Addressing Consumers’ Needs in the Digital Age.” 

The first part of the meeting took the form of three moderated debates on the topics:

·         There are uses of music in education that should never require payment;
·         Users and creators must be able to use copyrighted material to produce a new compound work for non-commercial purposes without needing a license; and
·         Consumers should be able to use lawfully-acquired/licensed copyrighted material for any purpose within their home and personal network.

Interestingly, it was not only consumer representatives who argued in favour of these propositions. In fact, those in favour in the first debate were Martyn Ware, founder of music groups The Human League and Heaven 17, and Konrad Boehmer, composer and ex-president of Dutch collecting society BUMA/Stemra.  

Those against included Boehmer’s colleague Robbert Baruch, current Manager for Public Affairs of BUMA/Stemra, as well as Marianne Rollet from the International Confederation of Authors and Composers Societies.

Following the debates, we discussed what could be done now to address the concerns that consumers had voiced.  

The copyright owners’ representatives did not accept all of the concerns, and correctly pointed out that some of them (such as the inability to access some content streaming or download services across borders, even within Europe) pointed to problems in the administration of copyright, more than to shortcomings in the law itself.  

Nevertheless, there was a consensus to work towards developing a joint best practice standard to allow for more flexible use of existing copyright exceptions or limitations, beginning with the right to make quotations (which is the only compulsory copyright limitation in international law).

This is an excellent starting point, since an appropriately broad and flexible application of the quotation right could facilitate many creative uses of copyright works for purposes such as non-commercial remixes, mash-ups, home movies, fan fiction and art, and online video sharing, the legality of which in most of Europe is currently ambiguous at best.  
If we can successfully develop a shared understanding with copyright owners on the flexible application of the quotation right, the outcome will provide a template for future law reform and may even open the door to further fair use rights for consumers being agreed in the future.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Consumer protection must be at the center of rebuilding our economies

Ira Rheingold, Executive Director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA), outlines how to create fair and just consumer-centric financial regulation.

For the past five years, the European Union and the United States have faced their greatest collective economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Failing banks, mountainous debt, minimal consumer savings and disastrous unemployment rates threaten all of our countries’ immediate and long-term financial well-being.

How we respond to this crisis and how we apply the lessons we should have learned from our own culpability in allowing this to happen, will go a long way in determining whether the EU and the US can regain their moral and financial standing in the world.

As we tackle this difficult challenge, I believe that it's essential that the needs and voices of ordinary consumers be put at the forefront of our decision making. This clearly has not been the case recently and we're paying the price for it right now.

As someone who has worked as a consumer advocate for the past two decades, our current crisis came as no surprise to me or my colleagues. It has been clear to us, since the late 1990s, that many of our nation’s big institutions had lost their way.

We watched our economies grow dependent on consumer debt, while simultaneously encouraging the reduction of those very same consumers' real income and savings. We watched as big banks recklessly disregarded the needs of consumers and investors, as well as their own long-term safety and soundness, for immediate and irresponsible profits.

And as we watched this happening, consumer advocates warned our governments, in their race to "deregulate" and "harmonize", that their failure to rein in this thoughtless and dangerous behaviour and to properly protect their nation's consumers would lead to our collective financial ruin.

But consumer voices were ignored and that's exactly what we watched happen.

What should be clear to everyone by now is that the central blame for the breakdown of our economies ultimately lies with the dishonest and unfair banking practices of the worlds’ largest financial institutions.

The lending these multi-national companies created and funded, with ridiculously complex and opaque financial instruments, were negligibly underwritten, unsuitable and unsustainable for borrowers, arranged by persons not bound to act in the best interest of the borrower, and were filled with terms so complex that many individual consumers (and investors) had little opportunity to fully understand the nature or magnitude of the risks they were taking.

If our governments had put the needs of ordinary consumers first and foremost and provided effective protections that had truly punished institutions engaged in these practices, much of our current economic disaster could have been averted.

Unfortunately they did not and unfair and deceptive practices prospered. Simply, when financial institutions do a cost-benefit analysis of regulation and determine that unfair and deceptive practices will not only go unpunished, but will be rewarded, than those practices will ultimately become standard industry behavior.

So how do we create a fair and just consumer-centric regulatory scheme?

First, it is essential that we allow all levels of government to participate in the development of consumer protection regulation. On the international level, because much of the financial services industry operates cross-border, these companies must be monitored trans-nationally, as their behaviour carries risks into every market in which they do business.

Additionally, while it is important that we create international standards of financial service industry behaviour, these standards (and the desire for international harmonisation) must not stymie early action or stronger standards by individual nations.

Conversely, it is equally essential that international regulators not allow these institutions to avoid one country’s stricter regulation by “exporting” their home countries more lax regulation thus leading to a competitive race to the bottom among countries seeking to attract corporate headquarters.

Second, on the national level, where much of the rgulatory failure occurred, consumer protection law must be seen as an essential part of creating a robust and sustainable marketplace and economy. Simply, for our economies to function properly, the financial services market must be built and structured from the consumers' perspective.

Transparency, substantive restrictions, effective and robust enforcement and sufficient consumer consultation rights must be built into a well-managed and well-regulated financial services structure.

Finally, in developing these viable and effective consumer protection schemes, national governments must allow for a strong concurrent and complementary role for provincial or state government regulators. These more local governments can provide needed early enforcement of existing standards and also develop new standards to address emerging practices before they cause widespread consumer harm or systemic risk.

State and provincial legislatures are often in a unique position to spot and stop bad practices before they become universal. To ensure rapid and appropriate responses to abuses in the financial credit markets, consumer protection and regulation of financial institutions must be allowed at all levels of government.

Our current financial crisis need not have happened and it need not ever happen again. We must always remember that in our ever-more complex and inter-related world, the motivation and interests of financial institutions often conflict with the general well-being of ordinary consumers and the long-term economic soundness of our nations.

Only with a carefully constructed and multi-governmental regulatory scheme that places consumers and consumer protection at its center, will we have a fair and honest local and global marketplace that is safe and stable and not subject to another bad-behaving, corporate-driven financial meltdown.

Ira Rheingold is also co-chair of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) Financial Services group, a CI-facilitated network of EU and North America consumer organisations.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Building support and leading advocacy for CI in Asia

Indrani Thuraisingham, Head of CI Office for Asia Pacific and the Middle East, reports on the activities of the region
It’s been a busy time in the Asia Pacific and Middle East region and I’m happy to be able to announce the completion of some important projects as well as the addition of two new members to the CI family.

First, welcome to our newest members:

Second, I am excited to announce the upcoming release of our EU-funded video on the challenges faced by consumers in relation to sustainable consumption and production.

This six-minute video is a collaboration between CI and SWITCH-Asia, an EU-funded programme to promote sustainable consumption and production.

The video features stories from many typical households throughout Asia and their consumer habits as collected by SWITCH-Asia partners in China, India and Vietnam and the following CI members:  

The video will be shown at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil this month. It will be available for all to see on the CI website, and you can ‘like’ us on Facebook to keep up to date with this and all our activities for Rio+20..

Third, we successfully completed our seven-month programme of work in Nepal which looked at ways to develop the country’s consumer movement.

We found that getting more information into circulation through consumer education and awareness programmes and setting up clear and effective systems for redress are the best ways to boost consumer confidence and grow the country’s movement.

As part of the project, our office carried out training sessions, mapping of consumer organisations, exposure visits, and printing of IEC materials on consumer protection as well as organised the policy conference for government officials from the Department of Commerce and representatives of all of the consumer organisations in Nepal.

The programme was run under the auspices of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization through the EC-Nepal WTO Assistance Programme towards "making the consumer movement a viable market force" from September 2011 until March 2012.

Finally, I am pleased to announce that our office is currently leading CI’s work in two of the five global priority programmes as part of our new Strategy 2015. These are ‘Consumers in the Digital Age’ and ‘Consumer Justice and Protection’.

These two global programmes have a common agenda of engaging UNCTAD to revise the UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection to include access to knowledge, competition, financial services and e-commerce.

CI’s Dr Jeremy Malcolm attended the recent UNCTAD XIII conference in Doha, Qatar, to advocate for the inclusion of both consumer protection and access to knowledge issues in the outcome documents of the conference.

There were heated debates with governments from some developed countries about their desire to remove important references to the global financial crisis and climate change from the outcome text. It was due to the persistence of civil society organisations such as CI that most of those references were reinstated.

In the end, the outcome documents made a strong statement for the consumer movement, in particular the civil society statement which reiterated the eight consumer rights, and called for the revision of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Your chance to quiz the top people in the consumer rights movement

CI’s Head of Communications, Luke Upchurch, on what to expect from the CI President’s Webinar

CI’s very first President’s Webinar – which I will be hosting on 7 June at 12:30 GMT – is a unique opportunity for CI member organisations, and the public at large, to put questions to those at the very top of the global consumer rights movement.

To coincide with our Annual General Meeting and the launch of our new Your Rights, Our Mission: Strategy 2015 materials, we’re seeking to meet our objective of using web technologies to strengthen relations with our members.

But more than that, I see this as a genuine chance to hold the CI President and Director General to account for the future direction of our international movement.

It’s the chance for all to hear why we are focusing our advocacy efforts on areas such as Financial Services, Food, and Consumers in the Digital Age;what we plan to do to promote Consumer Justice and Protection around the world; and how we hope to empower our members so that they can perform as more effective organisations.

It is also the opportunity to ask the tough questions too. These are austere times for many non-profit organisations, and, like others, CI has to make tough decisions about where to focus limited resources – decisions that should rightfully raise questions and answers.

The webinar is an open opportunity to explore all these areas, and more. I’ll be putting a selection of your questions to CI President Jim Guest and CI’s DG Helen McCallum, so please email Webinar@consint.orgto register with us and secure your place.

If you want to pose a question, you can do this when you register, during the Webinar itself, on our Facebook event page, or via twitter at @Consumers_intusing #CI2015. We’ll try and touch on as many of your issues as we can.

I do hope you will join us.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How group action is reinventing consumer activism

Richard Bates, from CI member Consumer Focus, explains how social technologies are revolutionising consumer action—an important lesson for consumer groups around the world

Here’s a theory I’m sure you’re familiar with: foster competition within a market and its benefits – prices held down, service driven up and thriving innovation – will follow, as engaged consumers work to maximise their own interest and seek out better deals.

It’s a notion that underpins our energy, telecoms and financial services markets here in Britain. 

And here’s a reality that I suspect won’t be unique to Britain: mass inertia is the norm across these sectors. It’s a predictable and understandable consumer response in markets where engagement is not a high priority and which suffer from being archetypal ‘confusopolies’.

The result is an impasse. Consumers stay put and competition gives way to complacency on the provider side. The benefits that competition should deliver for consumers are then in short supply. The fabled invisible hand is, well, all too invisible.

But, what if we created an alternative, much simpler, more powerful way of making these markets work for consumers? One where an intermediary works on behalf of consumers to:
  • Provide a focal point around which consumers who want better value, but reject the conventional ‘go it alone’ route to market can cluster
  • Convert mass inertia into a competitive impetus by grouping participating consumers’ aggregate demand into a winnable block of market share
  • Leverage that aggregate demand to secure a better deal
  • Manage the mass switch of participating consumers to the provider who makes the best offer to the group
In a new reportfor Consumer Focus, I’ve argued the possibility of doing just that. The report expands on a trend I termed ‘Get it, together’ in a previous CI blog. At the core of this trend are the opportunities for new forms of group action enabled by social technologies.

Of course, coming together as a group in order to pursue a shared objective is nothing new. 

History is rich with examples of people organising in groups and using the consequent power of numbers to advance collective interests and press for change – whether social, political, or economic.

But the costs associated with large-scale group formation and, subsequently, the co-ordination and management of group action meant that only large organisations with hierarchies and management structures could act in this way. And only then if the benefits achieved outweighed the costs incurred.

Instances of people collaborating as a group outside the bounds of an organisation were mostly limited to small scale, local initiatives.

But social technologies have eroded those costs, meaning it’s not only easy for people to form groups now, it’s also easy for the group to achieve critical mass and to co-ordinate and synchronise its actions to achieve a shared goal.

As a result, we are seeing a proliferation of new kinds of groups, including consumers working together or through intermediaries to achieve a shared objective in the marketplace. The Bank Transfer Daycampaigns in the USA harness precisely these dynamics, as do local Carrotmob initiatives.

What’s more, in the past effective group effort often depended on a division of labour that assigned all members a task to undertake in pursuit of the group’s aims. Not anymore.

An active intermediary can now work on behalf of the group and harness the power of its numbers - rather than the efforts of its members - to achieve the shared goal. Other than aligning with the group and signalling assent to an action being undertaken on their behalf, individual members can now be effective in aggregate while remaining largely passive in practice.

In a consumer context, this solves the problem of inertia and minimises the costs of market participation for consumers, offering them the attractive proposition of better outcomes for less effort.

Today, we’re seeing the first wave of initiatives that look to put these ideas into practice and disrupt the markets to which they’re applied. Within the next three to five years collective switching could well turn the status quo on its head and create a situation where providers will have to work much harder to win and retain the custom of large groups of consumers.

Already, collective switching pioneer iChoosr has secured significant savings on energy bills for hundreds of thousands of consumers in Belgium and the Netherlands. Consumentenbond has also applied the approach successfully in the Dutch energy market. Which? has just overseen the first instance of collective switching in the British energy market, resulting in a straightforward route to an average saving of £123  for up to 200,000 participating consumers. Choice provided a much needed jolt to the Australian mortgage market by applying a variation of the approach there. 

As you may have noticed, three of those four initiatives have been offered by consumer bodies. The success of the exception, iChoosr, has been built on working in partnership with community organisations that consumers know and trust.

This suggests that integrity – a quality with which consumer and community bodies are strongly associated – will be key for consumer adoption of this approach. That’s hardly a surprise given that having the confidence to engage with an intermediary platform on a novel approach to markets that can represent a major financial commitment, will be a key issue for consumers.

Collective switching and wider initiatives harnessing the group dynamic have the potential to disrupt and rebalance how power and information flows in markets. Therefore, existing players who have most to lose are likely to resist the sea change rather than make the running in developing this kind of service.

Bodies working in the consumer interest therefore have vital roles to play as catalysts for collective switching. This could take the form of supporting pioneering intermediary services that work on behalf of consumers in markets; or, wherever necessary, involve the direct development and deployment of the platforms that can open this alternative approach up for consumers.

Richard Bates leads the Consumer Empowerment Programme at Consumer Focus @rchrdbts