Amazon Dash and the Internet of Things: Protecting the Consumer vs Convenience

It’s supposed to be one of the next big things: the Internet of Things (IoT), or basically the development of everyday objects with network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data to monitor their environment and perform basic functions… for example, a “smart fridge” which can recognise when milk is running low. It can then automatically order replacement, without the need for humans to interfere. And while we are not quite at a stage of automatic milk deliveries as order by the fridge, Amazon’s Dash Button is certainly a step towards a more automated shopping experience. However, while this semi-automated world sounds like paradise for some, it rings alarm bells for others… and Amazon ran into trouble in Germany recently…

The issue involves Amazon Dash Buttons, the automatic ordering buttons recently launched by Amazon. dash2Basically, the door bell like buttons allow Amazon Prime users to order everyday items, such as washing powder, toilet paper or food for pets to be ordered by simply pressing the button.

Amazon promises to deliver the goods within the next few days, saving the customer the need to go out and buy the products (and, of course, potentially forget to buy them and run out). And while this isn’t quite IoT as yet, it is starting to come close(r): i.e. a world where many everyday items just conveniently “reappear”, rather than having to worry about buying those trivial things like pet food and co…

However, while the “one press order” appears reasonably straight forward to some, a consumer protection organisation in Germany has started to sound the alarm bells, threatening to take Amazon to court over breaches of current internet shopping regulation. The problem here may, of course, not be simply the dash button – but also what it means for future generations of online shopping, e.g. scenarios where human interaction is no longer required, such as in the envisaged Internet of Things.

German watchdog: You need to know all the details of your internet oder first Click To Tweet

The main issue the consumer organisation has is that the button does not display important information related to the purchase: For instance, no price is displayed – or indeed any information that by pressing the button the consumer is ordering something (and has to pay for it). The organisation argues that this contravenes current regulation which must display relevant details and allow the consumer to confirm a purchase. Without such a confirmation, the organisation argues, the consumer does not know the final price of the product – nor does Amazon tell the consumer anything about the product the consumer is currently ordering (such as size of the packet, how to cancel etc…).
In other words, the consumers are left unclear about what they are ordering, when it will be delivered and what it will cost – nor are they told about any alternative products or product sizes.

As can be imagined, the consumer organisation stance has created significant controversy: tech bloggers have argued that it is simply an expression of a nanny state – and that the consumer organisation is enforcing laws and regulations which were designed for an internet of long gone (in fact, one blogger called the rules “made for the stone age“).

Of course, it is easy to understand both sides: For example, while consumer protection has good arguments that orders should be confirmed and that consumers should know all the details of their order before placing it – it is also easy to see that such an additional confirmation step would make the buying process significantly more complicated (still easier that going to a supermarket and carrying a 2kg pack of washing powder home, though). Basically, the controversy boils down to a simple question:

Dash Button Controversy: Order details vs ease of ordering - which is more important to the consumer? Click To Tweet

Moreover, while, the Dash Button still requires some form of human interaction (e.g. pressing the button) it could be interesting to see how something like the Internet of Things could fit within current regulation – or what changes would have to be made to existing regulation: For example, would a fridge that has detected that the milk is running low first have to ask their owners for permission to order new milk? On the other hand, what would happen if a consumer comes home and finds that the fridge has decided to go on a spending spree? How could the consumers be protected in cases where there is no human interaction?

Potential discussion topics:
Would you put Dash Buttons in your house?
What are the arguments for both sides in this case?
How can you protect the consumer in this case?
How should consumer organisations react?

Some suggested additional reading:
Chapter 1 and 12 – Eagle & Dahl: Marketing Ethics & Society
Chapter 12:Privacy, Ethical and Legal Issues – Dahl: Social Media Marketing

Also published on Medium.

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