From the October 2000 issue of Startups

When it comes to consumer rights and protection, the Internet is still uncharted territory. The Web sometimes resembles more of a free-for-all than a shopping mall. That's prompted the new Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) to step in and help make sense of consumer protection in cyberspace.

The OECD (www.oecd.org), an alliance of 29 member countries (including the United States), creates social and economic policies. Late last year, the Paris-based organization released its Guidelines for Consumer Protection in the Context of Electronic Commerce. Although these recommendations don't have the force of law, they do create a platform on which countries can build their policies and laws. The aim is to ensure that consumers are as safe shopping online as they are in the real world.

Of course, some of the guidelines also work with brick-and-mortar commerce. According to the OECD report, "Businesses engaged in electronic commerce should pay due regard to the interests of consumers and act in accordance with fair business, advertising and marketing practices." But the recommendations also address situations unique to the dotcom world, like when information about proprietors of Web sites can be hard to dig up. The report states, "Businesses should not exploit the special characteristics of electronic commerce to hide their true identity or location, or to avoid compliance with consumer protection standards and/or enforcement mechanisms."

Also covered are privacy policies and protection, secure payment systems, transaction information and dispute resolution. Many of the guidelines have their bases in laws that are already on the books for consumer protection. To view the guidelines, visit www.oecd.org/dsti/sti/it/consumer/prod/CPGuidelines_final.pdf.