Amidst significant progress made by consumer advocacy groups in promoting citizen interest, Consumer Focus’ Saskia Walzel presents several opportunities for deeper stakeholder involvement in media policymaking.

The so called “consumer landscape” is changing fast; Consumer Direct is now the Citizens Advice consumer service, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is to be merged with the Competition Commission, and Trading Standards is taking on some of the OFT’s consumer protection powers. From early 2013 onwards, Consumer Focus’ consumer advocacy in what is called the general economy will transfer to Citizens Advice, and Consumer Focus’ consumer watchdog role for energy and post are to move to Citizens Advice in 2014.

The consumer landscape has sprawled over the past decades, and the current changes follow comprehensive consultation by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on how to streamline the various bodies responsible for advising consumers, advocating on their behalf and enforcing consumer law.

As public sector companies and monopolies, such as in telecoms, energy, water and transport, were privatized in the 1970s to become “regulated industries”, regulators were set up, and in many cases statutory consumer watchdogs. Consumer Focus, for whom I work, was actually established in late 2008 by merging Energywatch, Postwatch and the National Consumer Council. There is also Consumer Council for Water, and Passenger Focus.

But no statutory watchdog was set up for communications technology. Instead, the Communications Act 2003 established a Communications Consumer Panel to advise the regulator Ofcom on consumer interests in telecommunications, broadcasting and the spectrum markets. Such statutory consumer panels also exist in other regulated industries, there is for example an Aviation Consumer Advocacy Panel and a Financial Services Consumer Panel.

As part of Consumer Focus’ general economy work we did work on digital and communications technology issues, often in close collaboration with the Communications Consumer Panel. We also worked closely with digital and human rights groups who sought to protect the rights of consumers and citizens in the online world. And we watched with awe as digital natives started banding together to take on social networks, parliament and copyright trolls.

Working as consumer advocate in the digital policy field has been quite something – let’s not forget that in 2009 the UK Government thought that a promise of up to 2 Mbps copper connection for all was some sort of blueprint for the UK’s bright digital future. Digital citizens were so unimpressed with the Interim Digital Britain report, and the BIS stakeholder events, that they organised their own Digital Britain unconferences across the UK to produce a representative people’s response. BIS civil servants took this as constructive criticism, attended a few unconferences (no mandarin was harmed) and even dipped their toes into the mysterious world of blogging.

The Government then decided that Internet access was so essential to all citizens, and the economy, that it should be cut off (or throttled, if that is possible for an under 2 Mbps copper connection) on the basis of mere allegations of online copyright infringement. Things have changed massively since the Digital Economy Act 2010 received royal assent. For a start, most Government departments running public consultations on digital issues now actually expect consumer and citizens to respond.

There is lots going on right now: super fast broadband is being rolled out, spectrum is being auctioned off to enable next generation mobile broadband, Ofcom keeps reviewing billing and contract issues like there is no tomorrow, there is barely a department that does not have at least one Twitter account, UK Ministers travel the world to declare their love for the open internet, internet governance is now “multi-stakeholder”.

The Internet is everywhere now; public services are going digital by default, banking and billing is now online, and without internet access citizens cannot participate in economic and social life. Now more than ever it is important that digital consumers and citizens get involved, and there are plenty of opportunities to get active:

  • Join the Open Rights Group: there are many ways in which you can get involved with the UK’s leading grass roots digital rights organisations. Keep an eye on the ORG blog and twitter account to stay up to date with UK digital policy. ORG often organises responses to consultations on various digital issues, and puts out calls to contact MPs on proposed laws. ORG also collaborates with academics on research projects, such as for example when ORG and the LSE Media Policy Project collaborated to write the ‘Mobile Internet censorship: what’s happening and what we can do about it‘ report. Since it was set up by a bunch of geeks in 2005 ORG has gone from strength to strength; ORG is currently intervening on behalf of consumers in an application for a disclosure order against the ISP O2 by Golden Eye International. If you want to support ORG’s work financially, you can make a one-off donation, or join ORG as a member. See here for more info.
  • Support Citizens Advice: Last year the Citizens Advice service helped 2.1 million people with 7.1 million problems. If you need advice on consumer issues, for example on issues relating to consumer or contract law, you should get in touch with the Citizens Advice consumer service. The consumer service can also make referrals to Trading Standards, for example in case of unfair commercial practices (when a trader is using misleading or aggressive practices). The work of Bureaux is more important than ever. If you have the time, you should consider volunteering as Bureaux adviser, or as IT angle. From early 2013 Citizens Advice will undertake consumer advocacy for the general economy. If you think digital and communication technology should be one of Citizens Advice’s priorities you should get involved in their 2013/14 annual plan consultation.
  • Knock on Ofcom’s door: the Communications Act 2003 it is Ofcom’s principal duty “to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters; and to further the interests of consumers in relevant markets, where appropriate by promoting competition.” Follow Ofcom on twitter to keep on top of open consolations. Sign up to the Competition and Consumer Enforcement Bulletin, if you want to keep up to date with Ofcom investigations into breaches of regulatory rules under the Communications Act, consumer protection legislation, and anti-competitive behavior by communications providers. If you want to get involved in the work of the Communications Consumer Panel, sign up to their newsletter, which will also keep you up to date with the work of the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC). The CFC is an informal forum for consumer advocates and meets with Ofcom four times a year. If you want to contribute to the CFC get in touch with the CFC chair Claire Milne at cbm@antelope.org.uk