The Transparent Trap: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on the Design of Transparent Online Disclosures in the EU

Abstract

In its drive to prevent market failures and safeguard consumers, the European legislator has embraced the information approach. In the context of online trade, this requires online traders to disclose ever-growing amounts of information to consumers regarding contract terms, the handling of their personal information, and the use of cookies on the trader’s website, to name just a few of the areas involved. However, whilst adopting substantive information obligations for traders, the European legislator still tends to disregard scholarship on effective information design. This paper recommends empirically tested, interdisciplinary criteria for the design of effective disclosures online, with a focus on their application in the EU. Without clear guidance as to how disclosures should be formulated, traders are left open to accidental or purposeful obfuscation.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    For a more extensive overview of behavioural economics’ current application in EU legislation as well as its potential for the future, see, e.g., Helleringer and Sibony (2017) and Purnhagen (2015).

  2. 2.

    See, e.g., Council Directive of 13 June 1990 on package travel, package holidays, and package tours (90/314/EEC) OJ L 158/59 (Package Travel Directive) or Directive 97/7/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 1997 on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts OJ L 144/19 (Distance Selling Directive).

  3. 3.

    Directive 2005/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 May 2005 concerning unfair business-to-consumer commercial practices in the internal market OJ L 149/22 (Unfair Commercial Practices Directive).

  4. 4.

    See, e.g., CJEU, case C-210/96 (Gut Springenheide) ECLI:EU:C:1998:369 para 37.

  5. 5.

    CJEU has started to apply the benchmark of an average consumer in cases assessing fairness of standard terms and conditions. See, e.g., CJEU, case C-26/13 (Kásler) ECLI:EU:C:2014:282.

  6. 6.

    For a more extensive account of the information paradigm in European law and its behavioural turn, see Franck and Purnhagen (2013).

  7. 7.

    Council Directive of 20 Dececmber 1985 to protect the consumer in respect of contracts negotiated away from business premises (85/577/EEC) OJ L 372/31 (Doorstep Selling Directive).

  8. 8.

    Directive 2011/83/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011 on consumer rights OJ L 304/64 (Consumer Rights Directive).

  9. 9.

    Directive 2008/48/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2008 on credit agreements for consumers OJ L 133/66 (Consumer Credit Directive).

  10. 10.

    See, e.g., Regulation 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011 on the provision of food information to consumers OJ L 304/18.

  11. 11.

    We are focusing in this paper on the function of information obligations as a consumer protection mechanism rather than a purported silver bullet against market failures and a mechanism, which assigns information responsibilities and analytical competences to different stakeholders (for further reading on this point, see Franck and Purnhagen 2013).

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Acknowledgements

We sincerely thank Marco Loos and Mia Junuzović, who are also participating in this project, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions. We also thank participants of workshops where we presented this paper for their feedback. All authors contributed equally to the paper.

Funding

This research is funded by the DFG (German Research Foundation; project number: WU 824/1-1). It is part of the research project “The ABC of Online Disclosure Duties. Towards a More Uniform Assessment of the Transparency of Consumer Information in Europe” funded by the DFG and the NWO, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research under the Open Research Area for the Social Sciences funding program.

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Correspondence to O. Seizov.

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Seizov, O., Wulf, A.J. & Luzak, J. The Transparent Trap: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on the Design of Transparent Online Disclosures in the EU. J Consum Policy 42, 149–173 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10603-018-9393-0

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Keywords

  • Transparency
  • Information obligations
  • Online communication
  • Consumer protection
  • Information design