Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Hideous Cost Of Banking 'Standards'

I'm a great fan of trade bodies that introduce necessary self-regulation and create an efficient bridge between industry and officials. But news that UK banks will add to their enormous lobbying efforts by spending an extra £7-10m on a new "Banking Standards Review Board" definitely strikes me as overkill. 

I mean, what's the British Bankers' Association for, if not to ensure decent industry standards? Does the need for a new 'standards' board mean that the BBA has failed? If so, shouldn't it be dismantled? What about the Lending Standards Board? It's role is "to monitor and enforce the Lending Code and to ensure subscribers provide a fair deal to their personal and micro-enterprise borrowing customers." Surely it failed in that aim long ago?  Or is it that such bodies are really just lobbying outfits that merely pay lip service to effective self-regulation? In 2011 alone, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that the City spent £92m on lobbying regulators and politicians, which it described as an "economic war of attrition." Even the Confederation of British Industry has been captured by the banks.

Lord knows how much it really costs to run these lobbying outfits and face savers. But you can bet that customers and/or taxpayers end up paying for them in the end - not to mention the 2000 extra staff that the Financial Ombudsman Service has had to hire since 2012 to deal with the million complaints about payment protection insurance, or the endless Parliamentary time, or the £20bn in PPI compensation that the banks must fund. In fact, the London School of Economics found that poor conduct among the world's top 10 banks, including 5 UK outfits, had cost nearly £150bn by the end of 2012, and there have been vast fines and compensation payments since. 

Isn't it time for the banks to stop talking their way through everyone's money and just get on with the job of supplying decent financial services?

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Google Spain Case Raises More Questions Than It Answers

I'm an enthusiastic supporter of greater control over your data. But I'm really struggling with the European Court of Justice ruling that you can stop a search engine linking to something lawfully published about you in your local newspaper's online archive.

The case in question concerned the appearance of someone's name in a local Spanish newspaper announcement for a real-estate auction connected with proceedings to recover social security debts 16 years ago. The individual concerned (openly named in the judgment, ironically) claimed that the proceedings had been "fully resolved for a number of years and that reference to them was now entirely irrelevant." He failed to obtain an order banning the newspaper from carrying the item in its online archive, but succeeded in getting Google Spain to remove any links to it.

But surely if it was lawful for the local newspaper to have published the item of data - and it remains okay for it to publish the data via its website - then it should be okay to allow someone to find it?

I mean, why stop at gagging Google's local site? Why not make local libraries cut tiny holes in their microfiche records?

On this point, the ECJ cited problems where multiple jurisdictions were involved, even though this was purely Spanish scenario:
"Given the ease with which information published on a website can be replicated on other sites and the fact that the persons responsible for its publication are not always subject to European Union legislation, effective and complete protection of data users [subjects?] could not be achieved if the latter had to obtain first or in parallel the erasure of the information relating to them from the publishers of websites."
But how could removing links to an item from a national search engine achieve "effective and complete protection" of the data subject when the same items are lawfully available via a national newspaper's online archive anyway? Surely a national problem such as this has to be dealt with at source, or not at all?

Another key issue is that the ECJ didn't seem to weigh up all the possible public interests against the particular individual's rights to 'respect for private life' and 'protection of personal data'. 

Surely, for example, there was some public interest in the publication of the notices of auction complained about, such as achieving a fair price for property being sold to pay a debt to the state? Perhaps if that requirement had been abolished you could make a case for requiring the deletion of public notices relating to them. But, absent their abolition, I'm not sure you can say it's "entirely irrelevant" that someone was mentioned in such a notice, even if that were years ago.

And is there not a public interest in being able to more readily find published material via search engines? Consider the huge variety of research processes that must now rely on search engines, from journalistic research, to employment checks, to official background checks. What holes will now emerge in such research processes? Will records be kept of all the links that search engines were told to remove? If so, where will those records be kept? Who will be allowed to access them? Aren't researchers now on notice that they should check individual newspaper archives for data that search engines aren't allowed to let you find? How many won't bother when they really should?

The problems with the judgment don't end there, as is demonstrated by the tortuous path the ECJ took to reach its result (explained here). 

All of this underlines the need for careful policy thought and regulatory clarity around these issues, rather than the celebratory gunfire heard in some quarters. This judgment raises more questions than it answers.


Saturday, 10 May 2014

Has The Initial Term Of Your #Mobile Contract Expired?

Are you a cash cow?
Today I contacted Vodafone to cancel the 3G contract I took out as part of an iPad offer a few years back. It's included as an extra number on my mobile bill, so it was easy to kind of forget it in the total. Turns out I'd diarised the wrong cancellation date, and could've cancelled last October, when I was first 'out of contract'. Okay, so I'm a bit of a mug (worse, I'd long ago switched the iPad to 'airplane' mode, so wasn't even using the 3G option), but I do tend to have a lot more important things on my mind. The decent thing would have been to remind me at the time the intial term expired to give me a chance to consider if I wanted to extend, switch or cancel. But that's not part of the service...

The first customer service person I spoke to wasn't allowed to process my cancellation request. She had to put me through to another person who could. I protested, but to no avail. Needless to say, the next person began putting me through the whole process again, presumably so I'd lose the will to cancel and consider an upgrade.

I toughed it out and insisted on cancellation. The representative agreed to put that through, but said it would only take effect in 30 days' time. Hang on, I said. If it was true that I was "out of contract", as they kept saying I was, then how could Vodafone still be entitled to 30 days of my money - not to mention the extra 6 months they'd already enjoyed through my diary error? I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear the explanation.

You see, they didn't really mean that I was 'out of contract' in the sense that the contract had somehow expired. That would be misleading. If the contract had really ended, Vodafone wouldn't have been entitled to be paid for the extra 6 months, never mind the 30 days. Instead, they only meant that the minimum term of the contract had expired. That meant the contract had actually continued subject to termination on 30 days' notice - so it could have gone on for 30 years if I hadn't called to cancel it. 

When I asked if Vodafone has a process for notifying customers when they are 'out of contract' (i.e. when their initial term has expired), the representative said they did not.

Of course, Vodafone does have a process of calling you about upgrade opportunities a long time in advance of when the initial term expires. But that's just marketing. They then go quiet around the time the initial term expires, so you bear the risk of beoming a rolling 30-day cash cow.

I wonder how many customers paid for an iPad or other device through a 3G contract and forget it's still appearing in their bill even though the initial term had ended? And how many get a new mobile and don't realise they're still paying for an old one they thought was 'out of contract'? Are they to be treated as stupid people, or people with a hell of a lot of other stuff on their mind who could do with a reminder? Would they be prepared to pay a small admin charge for a reminder at the right time, or should such a reminder be a part of any decent service?

It's worth noting that Ofcom banned "automatic rollover contracts" for consumers and businesses with no more than 10 employees in September 2011. But the ban only applied to landline voice and broadband services, and it only means the customer can't be automatically renewed into another extended 'minimum contract period'. The new rule is that the maximum duration of initial contracts can only be 2 years; and at that point users must be offered an option to contract for a further maximum duration of 12 months. That means they are prompted to extend, switch or cancel.

Should a similar rule be brought in for mobile services?

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