There are numerous studies that have measured the benefits of e-commerce, the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically illustrated its importance. Many countries have imposed quarantine measures and consumers and businesses with access to the internet were able to buy and sell goods in a safe way. This experience highlights the convenience of e-commerce in addition to saving time and money for consumers and reducing barriers to trade for online sellers. E-commerce also creates opportunities for underrepresented and vulnerable groups such as women, people with disabilities, and those living in rural areas.
Secondly, fulfillment and delivery are critical parts of the e-commerce process because customers expect to receive the goods they order in a timely manner. Merchants need locations to store inventory that is integrated with delivery. Customs procedures need to be efficient and transparent to facilitate cross-border e-commerce. These are the excerpts from the policy brief by the CAREC Institute titled Framework of E-commerce Development in the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) countries: Focus on Infrastructure Development.
This policy brief examines the state of the e-commerce infrastructure in the CAREC region which comprises of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. “The technical ability to access the internet is generally high in most CAREC countries. However, there is a gap between people with theoretical access and those actually using the internet, owing to barriers such as digital literacy and affordability.”
It is an encouraging fact that postal coverage is generally high in most CAREC countries. China, Georgia, and Uzbekistan report 100 percent of their population having mail delivered to their home. Kazakhstan and Pakistan also have a high rate of home delivery at 94 percent and 95 percent respectively, and Kazpost delivers periodicals to remote settlements using drones. Postal coverage is widely present except in Afghanistan and Mongolia, where the security situation in the former and the low population density over a large territory in the latter are challenging obstacles.
So, the infrastructure part is crucial and e-commerce cannot flourish without it. The study in question states international bandwidth is a critical part of data infrastructure, enabling data to be sent to and retrieved from anywhere in the world. “For CAREC landlocked countries without access to submarine cables, national backbones that cross borders play the same gateway role into the World Wide Web. There are vast differences in the availability of international bandwidth in the CAREC region. Georgia stands out with the largest relative bandwidth, some three times higher than that of Azerbaijan, which has the second largest bandwidth per capita.”
Another important point is that most online shops are small without large inventories and in online marketplaces, logistics and delivery are often the responsibility of the merchant. Kazakhstan and Pakistan are the only other CAREC countries besides China where there is evidence of logistics as a service platform for e-commerce companies. The study points out that TCS, the largest courier company in Pakistan, offers fulfillment as a service to e-commerce companies, with four warehouses and multiple delivery options.
Michael Minges, Consultant for the study, points out that a major barrier to consumer trust in e-commerce is whether consumers will actually receive the goods and services that they buy online, and whether they can get a remedy if there are defects. Such issues are dealt with in consumer protection legislation, as adapted to the age of Internet commerce.
Unfortunately, many CAREC members have no consumer protection laws under that name, though provisions against fraud or misrepresentation would be relevant to consumers as well as to businesses. The laws in place in the countries that do have them are quite varied, some modern, some out of date or partial.
Therefore, a serious challenge to effective consumer protection legislation is the need to enforce any rights it creates. Many countries set up consumer protection bureaus to deal with consumer complaints (offline or online), with the power to compel remedial behavior by the merchants. “Some countries offer special tribunals to deal with low value high volume disputes in either courts (“small claims courts”) or through alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, online (ODR) or offline.”
The authors also point out that some CAREC countries are said to have consumer protection laws that are not effective because consumers do not know their rights or how to enforce them. A remedy to this problem lies in direct government communications and possibly in enforcement action – not in the law as such. There are international models for consumer protection laws, notably from the United Nations.
It is advised in the study that CAREC members should ensure that their laws prohibit the activities provided in the international conventions, and that “their ability to collaborate in international enforcement efforts –including exchanging data on local proceedings and local suspects – is adequate to the challenges of cross-border crime.”
Besides, the members should adopt consumer protection legislation consistent with the UN and OECD models, with particular attention to the ability of the state to offer reliable enforcement of consumer rights given by the legislation.
Ms Mera, Consultant, CAREC Institute, advises that the CAREC members shall use their existing cooperation mechanisms to work toward achieving these goals. The ultimate aim, she says, is to maximise consistency and minimise tendencies to protect one’s own national interests, or even just legislative styles, against useful compliance with recognised international standards.
She says it is likely that member states will progress unevenly from their uneven starting points but this shall not be a reason to abandon the effort. Working to follow these recommendations will create better and more harmonised legislation than leaving such matters to chance or the changeable political currents of the day, she adds.
The writer is a staff member