EU, champion of the ringtone downloader

Giant stands on shoulders of local watchdogs

The EU Consumer Commissioner reports that a sweep of web sites promoting ring-tone downloads discovered that 80 per cent were in breach of regulations, but notably failed to mention the role national regulators played in finding the miscreants.

The EU looked at 558 sites across Europe, of which 466 need further investigation. Around half of them have inaccurate pricing, while almost three quarters failed to provide proper contact information, and 60 per cent were considered to provide misleading information.

The problem is the kind of site that offers a "free" ring tone, while the small print explains that this freebie is the first offering of a subscription service which will be sending the poor mark more ring tones over the coming weeks, at enormous cost. Unlike Readers Digest you can't even send back the freebie within a month to prevent the subscription service triggering.

The EU can't do anything, much to its frustration, but has passed the information on to the local authorities for further investigation. In the case of the UK that's PhonePayPlus, who regulate the premium-rate business in this country and this week published an annual report showing how much the business is worth - £460m in the last 12 months apparently.

Usage of premium-rate services is increasing, particularly among poor children - 32 per cent of them are paying the premium apparently, as opposed to middle-class darlings of whom only 18 per cent make use of such services.

PhonePayPlus wants to tighten up their rules to prevent the use of the word "free" and force services to ask punters to actively respond to a "subscribe" request, but they also say they'll be following up the leads sent over by the Consumer Commissioner.

This is, of course, part of the re-branding of the EU as the champion of the people, capping unfair fees and generally controlling corporations. The fact that this sweep was actually undertaken by local regulators, at EU request, is curiously absent from their release on the subject which only refers to "member states" and snidely infers that the EU has been denied the powers to deal with the problem directly:

"It is the job of the [local regulators] to check the market and correct mistakes. They are free to use all the powers in their possession to cease infringements including the shutting down of the web-sites"

Parts of the EU would like to see regulation of this kind moved to Brussels, and portraying local regulators as ineffective is a good way to achieve that, but making them do the leg work is, frankly, taking the piss.®

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