German Consumer Protection Policy

Transparency in business practices, guaranteeing data protection standards, and strengthening consumer advocacy are top-priorities for German consumer protection politicians in this legislative term.

After slightly more than two years in office, it the Federal Ministry for Justice and Consumer Protection (BMJV) has turned into one of the most active ministries within the German government. For Heiko Maas (SPD), Minister for Justice and Consumer Protection, an ambitious newcomer in federal politics, preventive consumer policy can be his “winning topic” among the electorate and an area with lots of political flexibility as he does not have to spend any tax money. Furthermore, the appointment of Gerd Billen, former Chairman of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (vzbv), and Ulrich Kelber MP, the long-time consumer policy expert of the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag as state secretaries in the BMJV sent out another political signal of change. One manifestation of the close relationship between the ministry and the consumer organization is the BMJV’s funding of the vzbv’s office in Brussels.

Hence, consumer protection will remain high priority on the national political agenda and will also affect German politics on the EU-Level. Looking at developments in Germany may shed a light on what to expect in Brussels:

  • The installation of “Market Watchdogs”: These recently established “consumer guardians” for the financial and digital sector are supposed to act as observer for indentifying undesirable market developments at an early stage and report to politics accordingly.
  • The introduction of a right to file class actions for consumer protection organizations: The corresponding law, adopted in early 2016, allows consumer associations in Germany to file lawsuits against companies on a broad range of issues concerning privacy and data protection. Before, consumer organizations were only allowed to file privacy lawsuits in case of faulty terms and conditions.
  • The appointment of an expert council on consumer protection: The new body, which is chaired by Prof. Dr. Lucia A. Reisch, professor at the Copenhagen Business School and member of the Federal Government’s Advisory Board for Sustainable Development, shall support the Ministry’s work. At least once a year, the expert group will present a detailed report with concrete policy recommendations which will focus on the current position of consumers in Germany and the most demanding topics and developments for consumers.

In particular the expert council may have significant impact on Germany’s future consumer protection policy. Recently published recommendations cover, among other sectors, online retail and eHealth with a focus on data protection and call for:

  • Users of wearables, smartphones and other digital devices to have the right to know who utilizes personalized health data;
  • Privacy and data protection settings of eHealth devices to be adjustable in consumers’ interest;
  • Online retail to be designed in a transparent and attractive manner with consumer- and privacy-friendly design and setting.

So while the European Data Protection Regulation is to be adopted soon, Germany is getting ready for tackling the next privacy issues. As the next federal election in 2017 is approaching, data protection will also affect the parties’ election programmes, thus determining Germany’s position for the time beyond 2020. It is foreseeable that consumer protection is going to become one of the key areas of German policy making in the European Union together with Data Protection and sustainability policies.

Picture: Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband.

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