Consumer Protection in Unpredictable Times: borderless challenges call for borderless solutions

Speech

Remarks by Josephine Palumbo
ICPEN President 2020-2021, and Deputy Commissioner, Deceptive Marketing Practices Directorate, Competition Bureau Canada

Delivered on November 30, 2020, during the first ICPEN conference under the Canadian presidency.
(As prepared for delivery)

Introduction

Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for our fully virtual, 2020 Canadian ICPEN Conference.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg People. The Algonquin peoples have lived on this land since time immemorial. We are grateful to have the opportunity to present in this territory.

It is a pleasure to be with you all again, even though the circumstances are certainly different than they were just one short year ago, when Colombia was preparing to host their first ICPEN conference.

Colombia assumed leadership shortly before the world entered an unprecedented time of fear and uncertainty, and it has been a challenging few months, to say the least. Colombia, you put together the first-ever, fully virtual ICPEN summit in just under two months – a remarkable feat! Thank you for the leadership you provided and for setting the stage for Canada.

COVID-19 has touched every aspect of our personal and professional lives, and I know that all ICPEN member nations, including Canada, are working hard to manage the economic and social impacts of this global pandemic.

In fact, the pandemic came at a time when consumer protection authorities worldwide were already facing a huge challenge -- adapting to the massive digital disruption that’s happening around the world. And that has certainly not changed.

And, as the world tackles COVID-19 through measures like teleworking, we will rely even more heavily on digital technology. We must continue to adapt to this global trend towards digital, but now, we must simultaneously navigate a worldwide pandemic.

This is an incredible feat and it will not be an easy task, but I believe, if we work together, we can overcome these challenges and ensure that the world’s consumers remain protected and empowered through these difficult times.

Current Challenges and International Collaboration

Like COVID-19, the rise of the digital economy, is a global phenomenon. Globally, consumers are spending more and more time online and engaging in the digital marketplace. While, this digital marketplace has certainly brought forth many benefits to consumers around the world, it has also posed many challenges and risks to consumer protection.

Similarly, big data has brought forth novel challenges, but also opportunities. Artificial intelligence is inseparable from a conversation on big data, and is no longer becoming a theme of the future, but rather a reality of today.

It is remarkable to believe that we now live in a world where data is more valuable than oil. We now see conduct occurring, more and more, across sovereign state borders. This reality is certainly problematic for enforcers. That is why, international collaboration is now more important than ever before.

When ICPEN first launched in 1992, there were only 19 member nations, mostly from European jurisdictions. Today, I am so proud to say that it has over 65 member nations and serves over five billion consumers world-wide.

We have moved from mere theoretical discussions of enforcement cooperation to our current reality of regular and consistent cooperation between these global authorities.

A coordinated approach to the challenges that the current digital age raises for consumer protection agencies, is critical for enforcers. Today, the benefits of international cooperation are clear. The more we cooperate, the better our abilities to detect and deter cross-border marketing malpractice. And by sharing best practices, we are able to conduct more effective and timely investigations and with the goal of providing better protection for consumers.

The global phenomenon of COVID-19 and the digital economy show us, that we are no longer dealing with issues restrained by boarders. Change is inevitable, and it is upon us. Will we rise to the challenge? Will we seize the opportunities that come with it?

These are the questions governments around the world are facing, and how we answer these questions will define our success.

Domestically, we, at the Canadian Competition Bureau, have a long history, like many others, of cooperation with competition authorities around the world.  

A month before the pandemic began, we released our four-year Strategic Vision where we state our objective to become a “world-leading competition agency, one that is at the forefront of the digital economy […]” in all aspects of our work.”

And to do this, I believe it begins with championing and encouraging global cooperation to tackle the most important consumer protection issues we all face globally. We will hear more from Canada’s Commissioner of Competition on this.

I can say that Canada is committed to playing a leadership role, both domestically and internationally, in adapting to the impact of the digital economy and rapidly changing marketplace. And I believe that many other nations are as well.

Programme of Work

Under our 2020-2021 Programme of Work for our presidential term, we will have many opportunities to engage in crucial exchanges and collaborations.

We have developed, with the support of numerous ICPEN members, a Programme of Work that seeks to provide consumers and our own organizations with what is needed most. For consumers, it means building trust in a changing marketplace. For member nations, it means fostering collaboration and working towards goals that will help us conduct the investigations of today, but also those of the future. Our goal is to foster a culture that works to facilitate, and to enable, consumers trust in a changing digital marketplace.

Through our Programme of Work, we focus on a number of digital enforcement topics.

We focus on Artificial Intelligence, or AI for short is an area of importance. Canada’s own Chief Digital Enforcement Officer will host a fireside chat to discuss the ways in which AI is changing our world and the implications it will have on our work.

Digital platforms are another area of attention. We have a working group analyzing the enforcement challenges, the data privacy concerns and third-party responsibility associated with digital platforms. This group will present their findings during the Conference.

We are also focusing on enforcement in the digital economy, more generally. Our working group on this topic will host a session examining and discussing how consumers interact with digital interfaces as well as whether enforcement agencies have the right tools and necessary expertise needed to effectively tackle digital consumer protection issues.

Beyond digital, we are also concentrating on issues that matter most to consumers and our members. We have a COVID-19 working group examining global best practices around remote investigative and consumer protection work to better adapt to misleading and fraudulent marketing activities related to the pandemic. Following my remarks, we will have a session fully dedicated to enforcement during COVID-19.

Likewise, environmentalism is another key area of focus for nations and consumers alike. Just like COVID, we must ensure that businesses are not exploiting consumers with false or misleading environmental claims. Specifically, our working group is examining ways to address misleading activities that attempt to take advantage of consumers concerns about the environment. During the conference, we will be able to contribute to the work of this team and support the production of guidance documents including a toolkit for enforcers.

These are but of a few of the highlights we will address over the coming days.

I would like to extend a sincere thank you to all the working group members who have been putting so much hard work into these important projects. Of course, this important work is supported by our ICPEN Advisory Group and our German Secretariat. To them, I, and members of Team Canada, would like to express our heartfelt gratitude for their collaborative spirit, their dedication and their stewardship. Thank you for the huge role you have played and will continue to play in realizing our collective vision.

Enforcement in the Digital Age

We know that, with the digital economy rapidly shifting and changing, enforcement becomes more and more challenging. And, the pandemic has further complicated this reality. Indeed, our reliance on digital firms to communicate, to shop, to learn, and to work has only grown since last March when the pandemic struck.

And it is important that we not underestimate this new reality. Digital firms and technologies raised significant concerns to consumer protection before COVID. Now, with such a deep reliance on these technologies, we can see a heightened risk to consumers. Many people, since the pandemic raced across the world, have had to pivot to a more digital workplace, have had to reduce shopping at traditional brick and mortar stores, with many consumers now purchasing almost exclusively online.

With COVID, we also see consumers who are trying to protect themselves and their loved ones during these very challenging times. We, as law enforcers, must ensure that they are not mislead to purchase fraudulent remedies or preventative medical products.

Again, there is no doubt that we are fortunate to have these digital technologies, which have allowed us to rapidly transition to a new way of living. But, our increased dependence on these digital firms also means that we must double our efforts in all aspects of our enforcement work related to COVID-19 and to the digital economy.

Perpetrators are moving fast and, as law enforcement agencies, we must be ahead of the curve and to do this we must cooperate with each other. We must also have access to the tools and strategies we need to tackle these challenges efficiently. This again, I believe, requires both domestic and international efforts.

Call to Action

Around the world, we are all facing similar and novel enforcement challenges. But, if we harness the power of working together as global consumer protection agencies, I have no doubt we can and will succeed. I call on each of you to do all that you can to encourage the sharing and exchanging of investigative strategies, information and best practices.

Again, we must not discount the power of cooperation and the power of coordinated investigative action. We must all champion global cooperation. I believe that every single member nation has the ability to play a key role, both domestically and internationally, in adapting to the impact of the digital economy and the every changing marketplace.

I encourage you all to join with Canada and advocate for inclusiveness, so that ICPEN can expand its reach to other jurisdictions, and spearhead the international mission of consumer protection on a global scale. There is strength in numbers and there are many thoughtful voices in the Network. Please let yourselves and your views be heard. 

Conclusion

Cooperation among authorities is critical to finding common approaches to tackling consumer protection in this increasingly borderless world. And, as we come to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic, we must continue to work together with our global partners. And ‘together’ is the key word here.

I believe that through the work of ICPEN, strong working relationships will stand as a hallmark of our success as consumer protection authorities in our digital and globalized world.

I, and all the members of Team Canada, feel so honored to have been vested with the Presidency of such an important and noteworthy global organization which is recognized worldwide. We will work hard to live up to the high standards set by our predecessors and we look forward to working with each of you to support ICPEN’s important work for consumers.

Finally, while we are saddened that we cannot share with you, first hand, all the amazing things our beautiful country - Canada has to offer, we will try to showcase, through the coming days, some of what it means to be “Canadian” - our amazing culture, the multicultural mosaic, the wonderful people, the engaging music, the symbolic traditions and the beautiful landscapes and structures representing Canadian democracy - all with the hope of bringing some of Canada to each you.

Thank you again for joining us in such large numbers, we truly feel your virtual presence and we do hope you will enjoy the conference.

Contacts

For media enquiries, please contact:
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Email: ic.media-cb-bc.ic@canada.ca

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www.competitionbureau.gc.ca
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