EU court rules on Amazon contact info obligations

Out-Law News | 16 Jul 2019 | 3:03 pm | 3 min. read

Online businesses that engage with other companies using a telephone number or email address do not necessarily need to make that contact information available to consumers, the EU's highest court has ruled.

The Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) clarified the requirements of EU consumer rights laws in relation to pre-contract information online retailers and e-commerce platforms need to share with consumers in a ruling last week.

The CJEU was asked to help clarify the requirements of EU law in a case referred to it from Germany where a German consumer organisation has challenged the way Amazon lets consumers contact it.

EU consumer rights law sets out information requirements that businesses must meet before concluding contracts with consumers. The information requirements are different for distance or off-premises contracts than those that apply to other business-to-consumer contracts.

According to the EU rules, for contracts other than distance or off-premises contracts, businesses must provide consumers with their telephone number.

In the case of distance or off-premises contracts, though, businesses must provide the consumer with a range of information including "the geographical address at which the trader is established and the trader’s telephone number, fax number and email address, where available, to enable the consumer to contact the trader quickly and communicate with him efficiently".

In all circumstances the information must be provided "in a clear and comprehensible manner".

In its ruling, the CJEU confirmed that it "seems to be disproportionate" to interpret EU law as requiring all online retailers and e-commerce platforms to meet "an unconditional obligation to provide consumers, in all circumstances, with a telephone number, or even to put in place a telephone or fax line, or to create a new email address in order to allow consumers to contact traders".

The court said that businesses that have a telephone or fax number they use for purposes other than contacting consumers do not need to "inform consumers of that telephone number, to provide a telephone or fax line, or to create a new email address to allow consumers to contact them".

In such circumstances, businesses can meet their contact information obligations in other ways, the CJEU said. This includes through operating "an electronic enquiry template, by means of which consumers can contact traders by means of a website and receive a written response or can be quickly called back", it said.

"[EU law] does not preclude traders offering goods or services online and which have a telephone number available in a few clicks from encouraging the use, by consumers, of other means of communication which are not mentioned in [EU consumer law], such as instant messaging or a telephone callback system, to allow consumers to contact them quickly and to communicate with them efficiently, in so far as the information that traders are obliged to provide under [the Consumer Rights Directive], and in particular that telephone number, is made accessible in a clear and comprehensible manner..."

"In that regard, the fact that the telephone number is available only following a series of clicks does not, in itself, mean that the manner used is not clear and comprehensible, regarding a situation ... which concerns a trader offering the online sale of various goods, exclusively by means of a website," it said.

It is now up to Germany's Federal Court of Justice to apply the CJEU's ruling to the Amazon case. German federation of consumer associations, the Bundesverband der Verbraucherzentralen und Verbraucherverbände (vzbv), has argued that Amazon's consumer contact options, which include a callback facility, do not meet the standards required by EU consumer law. Amazon has disputed that claim.

E-commerce expert Alexander Bayer of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said: "This ruling will break up the tight, and in part out-dated, German rules which are no longer fit for purpose in an online world. Consumers these days are on the one hand used to other forms of communication than telephone, and companies like Amazon on the other hand are able to provide other means to have consumers interact with them. This might not necessarily involve human interaction, but instead see involve tools like chatbots and other smart software."

"As long as the communication means available to the consumer are clear, easily accessible to consumers, and enable the consumers to interact with companies like Amazon, this should be in line with the EU Directive. This decision could also be taken as another indication that telephone communication is not playing a significant role any more in an online world," Bayer said.