Friday, 12 August 2005

Some suggestions

In our column last week we proposed solutions to some of the problems we feel that consumers in Botswana face. Please forgive us our presumption but rather than just complain we feel that everyone has a responsibility to contribute towards solving problems. As motivational specialists say: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”.

We don’t claim that we have the answer to everything. Much of what we suggest is really just to stimulate a public debate. However we’re passionate about helping to solve some of the problems we all face.

Last week we suggested a number of specific things that we think would help. This included real, effective legislation that would protect consumers and help guarantee fair trade, fair credit and cooling-off periods for credit schemes or major purchases.

We also suggested two concrete things that Government could do that we think could really change the landscape for consumers. Firstly we feel that community-based lending mechanisms would take credit away from loan sharks and return to where it used to be: our communities.

Secondly we proposed that Government should establish Citizens Advice Bureaux where we could all get free, independent and expert advice on consumer law. How many of us can afford lawyers for minor issues?

This week we’d like to cover another area where consumers currently have little or no protection.

Data Protection

In our column on 22nd July we covered some situations in which we felt that data held on us was not well enough protected. In particular we reported a case where personal credit information was disclosed to an unauthorised party.

We suggested in that article that we need effective Data Protection laws that will force organisations who hold data on us to guarantee that it is correct and to be forced to correct it when it’s not. Such laws should also cover how exactly the data held on us can be used and in particular who has access to it.

So what exactly should a Data Protection Law say?

The Information Commissioner

There needs to be someone in authority who can take charge. We think that Government should appoint an Information Commissioner. This officer should operate either within the Ministry of Communications, Science & Technology or perhaps even independently like the Ombudsman. The Commissioner should have legal powers to regulate the use of information and to punish those who transgress.

Registration

Any organisation that holds data on it’s clients must be forced to register that they do so with the Information Commissioner. They should disclose exactly what they are going to hold, who they hold it on, what they plan to do with it and to whom they plan to give it.

This must include everyone. Banks, shops, credit agencies, suppliers, everyone. Yes, everyone. Even hospitals, Government and schools.

Well, maybe not everyone. We’re not na├»ve. There are certain agencies that should be excluded from this regulation. We’re thinking of the Police and security services who obviously have to hold some data secretly. In these days of international terrorism it’s only reasonable.

Personal access

We must have access to the data held on us. This mustn’t be a voluntary thing. It should be our legal right. We must be able to confirm that the data held on us is correct and if we can prove that it isn’t then we must be able to demand that they correct it.

There should be standards for this access. We’re not unreasonable. We think that perhaps we should be given access to our data within something like 28 days of asking. Corrections should only be made if we can prove that the data is incorrect. The correction should again happen within another 28 days. We also think that is fair for the consumer to pay the supplier for access. It shouldn’t be much but it should be enough to cover the cost of a computer printout and postage. That way we’d also avoid spurious requests for access. Also this should only be done in writing, not over the telephone so we can prove we are who we say we are.

Regulated disclosure

There must be very strict rules about how data is disclosed. Companies who hold data on us must disclose when they register to whom they will disclose it. They will simply not be permitted to disclose it to anyone else.

Enforcement

The Commissioner needs teeth. He or she should be able to punish those who break the rules. The punishments should be effective and should provide a real deterrent.

How easy is it?

This sort of law exists in many other countries already and we know that many people in Botswana, notably in Government, have already given this some thought. However we think that the people need to be consulted. We need the chance to contribute towards this sort of law. However we do feel that we are lagging behind and this is not where Botswana deserves to be. We need this sort of protection now. We need to do what we do best: leading Africa, not following!

If you want to see some examples of how it works elsewhere, visit our website at www.bes.bw, click on Consumer Watchdog, then on Useful Links.

And now the good news!

Consumer Watchdog believes that as well as complaining, we should all celebrate success when we find it. This week we want to celebrate:

  • The cast, crew and everyone else connected with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat! If you have any doubt about whether we in Botswana have amazingly talented performers then go see it and be proved wrong. It’s simply amazing!
  • Ntume at 25° East for great service.
  • Joyce and Tebogo from BotswanaLife for being so friendly and helpful.

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