Currently, negotiations are ongoing regarding the change of consumer rights with regard to internet and telecommunication contracts at European level. On September 4th, 2017, the Committee of the European Parliament IMCO in charge of consumer rights adopted the report by Dita Charanzová (ALDE), which, even though intending to strengthen the rights of European Consumers, does, however, put the level of protection granted in Austria at risk: instead of European minimum standards, the report is demanding full harmonisation for the entire Union, which might render any rights extending beyond granted at national level obsolete.
Following the end of additional costs for roaming within the EU for most users, in the report on amending the Directive establishing the European Electronic Communications Code, the IMCO Committee of the European Parliament has come out in favour of reducing the costs of international calls within the EU. In doing so, the significantly higher tariffs for customers, who call a number in another EU country, shall be a thing of the past. Apart from that, it shall be possible to determine mobile phone or internet contracts early without incurring additional costs.
However, apart from these positive approaches, the Report adopted by the IMCO Committee also demands full harmonisation of consumer rights and thereby a departure of the principle of minimum harmonisation, which so far has proved to be successful. In doing so, the Committee follows the proposal of the EU Commission, which already provided for full harmonisation its Directive proposal. This means that it will probably not be possible to retain a significant number of Austrian protection provisions. However, from the point of view of the AK, these national rules in Austria have proved to be successful and protect against fraudulent value-added services, cost explosions concerning bills and intransparency.
An example for a national regulation, which is at risk because of full harmonisation, is the Cost Control Ordinance of the Austrian Telecom regulator, which came into force in 2012. This puts a stop to cost explosions regarding mobile phone and internet bills; when the upper limit of 60 Euro per month has been reached, providers are obliged to block the connection, unless they are informed by consumers that they want to continue using the telephone services. Prior to this Ordinance coming into force, many internet users have contacted the Austrian Chambers of Labour asking for help after they had received bills of 620 Euro on average. Even though after the change requests of the European Parliament, the Member States may retain or implement additional “information obligations” to control costs, this might not cover an obligation to block by operators when the monthly maximum amount has been reached.
Selectively, the Report grants the Member States certain scope of action within the framework of the so-called opening clauses. However, from the point of view of the AK these are not sufficient as it is not clear, how much scope of action they really grant the Member States. Apart from that, the approach of full harmonisation removes the option for Member States to speedily react to new problem fields at national level. In particular the telecommunication sector time and again comes up with new disadvantages for consumers, which the legislation cannot foresee today.
After the IMCO Committee, the ball is in the corner of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), which also deals with the Commission proposal. Subsequently the plenum of the European Parliament will adopt its final position. Apart from that, Parliament and Commission have to reach agreement with the Council so that the proposal can become applicable EU law. So far, in particular the Council, which is made up of government representatives of the 28 Member States, is critical of the proposal of full harmonisation. As the telecom and internet market is rapidly changing, the Member States continue to see the requirement of flexibility with regard to new national protection provisions, to enable a quick reaction to consumer problems. Some Member States want to retain their stricter national consumer provisions and not see them endangered by full harmonisation.