Personalisation is one of the key befits of the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT traders can combine data from multiple sources and access consumers’ most private spaces. At the same time, these traders retain control over their smart devices (‘Things’) throughout their lifecycles.
Thanks to this combination of deep knowledge of the consumer and control over the Thing, IoT traders can personalise products, services, prices, and even the terms of service that regulation the business-to-consumer relationship. The problem is that personalisation can lead to consumer manipulation and even discrimination – such detrimental effects can be referred to as the ‘Internet of Personalised Things’.
Situational data and information about consumers’ biases and vulnerabilities allow IoT traders to influence consumers’ decision-making in surreptitious ways. This can go from instilling the desire to purchase useless or even dangerous Things, to the exclusion of BAME people from certain job ads, through to electoral manipulation.
My paper will critically assess whether unfair trading laws – and in particular the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive as amended in 2020 – are fit for purpose and can provide a successful strategy to re-empower consumers, thus re-building trust in the IoT.
It is suggested that, despite some shortcomings, this regime can be invoked by consumer to counter IoT-powered manipulation, especially as the Directive provides special protections for vulnerable consumers and against traders’ undue influence impairing consumer freedom of choice.
The Directive does have some limitations but this should not come as a surprise. Being a neoliberal instrument aimed at pursuing a perfectly competitive single market, it cannot provide an entirely satisfactory response to an issue that capitalism itself created, namely the problem of manipulated needs as discovered by Marx.
I will present this research at the 111th Annual Conference of the Society of Legal Scholars in the Cyberlaw session (you can still register!).