Online dispute resolution platform
Regulation (EU) No. 524/2013 on online dispute resolution for consumer disputes has directly applied in all EU Member States, including Germany, since January 2016. The Regulation applies only to online trade with consumers by companies headquartered in Europe (i.e. not in Switzerland, China or the USA). The EU has implemented the requirements of this Regulation on the online platform. Consumers and businesses can use this platform to receive information and electronically submit complaints. In the event of conflicts and disputes about their contractual relationship, for instance, consumers and businesses have the option of achieving an amicable, straightforward settlement. The platform is free to use. If the parties are unable to find a solution themselves, they can appoint an arbiter who is offered via the platform. The resolution of disputes is thus based on the respective national laws on alternative dispute resolution (in Germany, the Consumer Dispute Resolution Act passed in December 2015, but which is not likely to enter into force until 2017). Dispute resolution does entail costs, but these are relatively low compared with court proceedings.
Requirements to be met by online traders
The Regulation imposes information requirements on online traders. An online trader’s website, for instance, must have a link to the online platform and provide an email address for this purpose. The link must be clickable on the website. It is advisable to include the link in the legal notice section and in the General Terms and Conditions. There is no obligation for a trader to engage in dispute resolution via the platform. The trader is only obliged to inform the consumer of this option.
What happens if the link to the online platform is missing?
If an online trader fails to include the appropriate link in its online store, it runs the risk of receiving a warning from, for example, consumer associations or competitors.
Alternative dispute resolution bodies
The online platform arranges alternative dispute resolution bodies in the individual Member States. The consumer and business can contact these bodies to obtain a quick and low-cost decision on their dispute. It is not mandatory to appoint the body; rather, both parties must wish to appoint it. Should one of the parties not wish to involve the body, the judicial route can still be pursued.
Among the bodies currently listed on the online platform for Germany are the Allgemeine Verbraucherschlichtungsstelle (General Office of Dispute Resolution for Consumers) of the Zentrum für Schlichtung e.V., the Customer Complaints Office at the Bundesverband der Deutschen Volksbanken und Raiffeisenbanken e.V., the Office of Dispute Resolution for Aviation at the Federal Office of Justice, and the Office of Dispute Resolution for Public Passenger Transport. The website of each dispute resolution body provides further information on the sphere of activity, duration of the resolution process and costs.
Since 09.01.2016, online traders headquartered in Europe who offer products to consumers have been required to mention the online dispute resolution platform in their online store and link their online store to the platform. The link should be included in the online store’s legal notice section as well as in the General Terms and Conditions. The platform also lists alternative dispute resolution bodies that have been established in each Member State of the EU. There is no obligation to use this platform or the alternative dispute resolution body to resolve a dispute. However, they do offer the option of quick and low-cost dispute resolution.