Explained: Will proposed e-commerce rules do away with flash sales, boost Make In India?

The e-commerce marketplace in India is already worth more than $80 billion this year and, by 2027, will have touched $200 billion in value. To bring order to the cutthroat e-commerce space, the Centre has proposed sweeping changes to the Consumer Protection (E-commerce) Rules that it had notified in July last year.

The amendments, to which the Centre will receive suggestions from the public till 6 July, 2021, are designed to substantially regulate the functioning of e-commerce platforms. From what they sell and how they sell to who they should designate to deal with consumers' complaints, the draft rules promise wide-ranging changes. Here's a look at the key amendments:

No flash sales?

Virtually every major e-commerce platform, in India or abroad, organises massive discount-sale events where customers are wooed with a big reduction in prices and combo offers. But the amended rules say that "no e-commerce entity shall organise a flash sale of goods or services offered on its platform" where such a sale is "organised by fraudulently intercepting the ordinary course of business using technological means with an intent to enable only a specified seller or group of sellers managed by such entity to sell goods or services on its platform".

According to reports, complaints have been aired that such sales are organised by entering into arrangements with retailers that can serve to undercut competitors, though e-commerce platforms deny such allegations.

E-commerce platforms to be liable for product, delivery issues?

Most e-commerce platforms direct the buyer to the vendor who sold the actual goods in case of problems with either the product or its delivery. But the amended rules say that in case of a loss to a consumer in respect of a transaction on the platform, it is the e-commerce entity itself that will be "subject to a fall-back liability".

This covers a situation where "a seller registered on its platform fails to deliver the goods or services ordered by a consumer due to negligent conduct, omission or commission of any act".

No selling own products?

In what could potentially be a major blow to the trend of e-commerce entities launching their own brands that compete with vendors' products on their platforms — something that is seen as helping them maximise their profits — the draft rules say that an e-commerce platform will need to "ensure that none of its related parties and associated enterprises are enlisted as sellers for sale to consumers directly".

Also, the amendments propose a ban on the "usage of the name or brand associated with that of the marketplace e-commerce entity for promotion or offer for sale of goods or services on its platform in a manner so as to suggest that such goods or services are associated with the marketplace e-commerce entity".

A boost for made in India?

Interestingly, the new rules include a provision that is intended to provide a fillip to domestic manufacturers. For imported goods, e-commerce entities will be mandated to "identify goods based on their country of origin".

That apart, they will also be required to provide filters on their website "regarding the origin of goods at the pre-purchase stage (and) at the time of goods being viewed for purchase".

Significantly, e-commerce platforms will need to suggest "alternatives to ensure a fair opportunity for domestic goods" and ensure that "the ranking parameters do not discriminate against domestic goods and sellers".

Big focus on compliance

Along the lines of the grievance officers that social media platforms are required to appoint an India, e-commerce platforms, too, will be mandated to create the roles of a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person, and resident grievance officer. These roles should be filled by a person who is a citizen of India and is resident in the country.

The chief compliance officer "shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act... and shall be liable in any proceedings relating to any relevant third-party information, data or communication link made available or hosted by that e-commerce entity".

The nodal contact person will be responsible for "24x7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and officers to ensure compliance" with their orders, or for any inputs sought by them.

Further, an e-commerce platform will be required to "prominently publish on its website, mobile-based application or both... the name of the grievance officer and his contact details as well as mechanism by which a user may make a complaint against violation of the provisions of this rule". Also, the e-commerce platform shall ensure that it "acknowledges the receipt of any consumer complaint within 48 hours and redresses the complaint within one month from the date of receipt of the complaint".

Close eye on the use of data?

Seeking to ensure that consumers' data is not misused, the amendments also say that no e-commerce entity shall share users' data with a third party without "the express and affirmative consent of such consumer".

Relevant here is the stipulation that e-commerce portals cannot have pre-ticked boxes designed to automatically secure users' consent. Further, they may neither use the data that is collected by them "for sale of goods bearing a brand or name which is common" with the platform "if such practices amount to unfair trade practice and impinge on the interests of consumers".

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