Sunday, 10 July 2011

Lashing out online: a consumer revolution

SPAIN (El Pais/Ana Lorite) Fame is short-lived, but what gets posted online lasts forever. Companies clearly do not want hundreds of protests about their service circulating around cyberspace, and their online reputation is a reflection of a brand's prestige. Consumers supply the content - easily and cheaply - and companies can't control it because it gets distributed en masse and can even create unwanted publicity.
Some firms have filed lawsuits against the forums that publish these complaints, but the Supreme Court has so far ruled in favor of the websites' right to publish. Other companies have learned their lesson, and have tried to embrace the phenomenon, encouraging, for example, communication between users on their own sites. The success of online complaints is joined by a social factor: Spaniards are no longer embarrassed to denounce abuses by companies and public offices.>>>
The internet is becoming one big complaint form. It's cheap, fast and you can do it from the comfort of your own home (or your mobile device). Thanks to their success among consumers, complaint sites are proliferating. Will this be the end of abuses by companies accustomed to cheating clients out of small sums, because for most of these individuals, getting involved in a legal dispute isn't worth it?

"I'm no lawyer; I'm a pissed-off consumer," says Santiago Álvarez-Barón, founder of "We start from the premise that we Spaniards do a lot of complaining verbally, but rarely in writing." Despite this aversion to written griping, there are a ton of portals, forums and blogs where consumers can voice their complaints. Telecoms lead the rank of shame, followed by financial institutions, major retail outlets, electric companies and the government.

Esther Uriol, from the communication department at El Corte Inglés department stores, says that they have a system to track and follow blogs, forums and complaint forums. "We don't look at any specific one; we look at all of them. Our main goal is to satisfy our customers."

Some companies have taken these websites to court, accusing them of causing damages or containing slanderous messages. A few months ago, however, the Supreme Court repealed a ruling against the forum A lawyer from the Mutua Madrileña vehicle insurance company had sued the site for damaging his reputation. In 2004, this lawyer saw that a forum published a message using his name under false pretences. It read: "I'm an attorney for Mutua Madrileña I'm tired of deceiving people, because the Mutua makes me postpone claims to avoid paying." The attorney notified the forum, which removed the message but refused to give him the author's name, according to data protection regulations.

The attorney filed a lawsuit, and was sentenced to pay him €6,000 for "moral and material damages." But the Supreme Court, citing a European directive, exonerated the forum's owners following the argument that they are not responsible for the opinions of its users.

Jorge Mira, the founder of, tells on his site why he decided to get into the internet: "I had a very bad experience with Blinko, the company that sells ringtones, songs and other cellphone applications. They ripped me off through misleading advertising. It cost me around 30 euros. Filing a suit or making a complaint with consumers' organizations would have taken me time that I didn't have so I denounced the scam by using something that was less expensive, and which I also love: the internet. I realized that I wasn't alone."

One of the problems consumers face is that their complaints often end up going nowhere. "Complaints are sent to the consumer protection board of each region. Then an arbitration court issues a ruling that must be accepted by both parties. But the companies often don't hold up their end of the bargain, forcing the consumer to go the civil route," according to the founder of Considering the current legal panorama, most people end up desisting, asking themselves: "Is it really worth getting into a legal mess over €50?" Many companies in Spain, one suspects, take such a response into account, and consumers often feel defenseless because their rights get ignored.

"Consumers' organizations only serve their members," says Juan del Real, an economist and one of the cofounders of, a portal offering practical information for consumers. Rubén Sánchez, a spokesman for the consumers' organization Facua-Consumidores en Acción, replies: "We're online, so everyone has access." But he adds: "We don't make a profit; our business is to defend consumers, although it is true that we can only offer certain services, such as legal services, to our members because they cost money."

Carlos García Cabañas decided to turn to one of these portals after the airline Iberia lost his bags. "As more than 40 days have gone by since my luggage disappeared, and over 20 days since I sent, by certified mail, all the documents you asked me for and I haven't heard anything back, I write to you once again to ask you to do something about it. After so long, it's clear that you're not doing anything, or at least you're not offering me a solution, so I find myself forced to post this complaint on"

These small companies, made up by volunteers who work for free or even contribute funds, are created with a vocation: to serve consumers. Del Real cites an interesting blog based in the United States that shows new forms of responsible consumption, Founded by Alex Bugosky, a repentant advertising man, it calls for a "new consumer law" like the one Kennedy passed in 1962.

In Spain, the bill for a new law on mediation in civil and mercantile affairs has been traveling the legislative path since February 2010. Promoted by the Justice Ministry, it aims, among other things, to reduce the number of disputes that end up in court. This law would allow complaints to be settled electronically, and establishes that for claims of under 300 euros, the mediation process can be carried out online. Although mediation for consumer-related matters falls outside of the scope of this bill, wants to take advantage of this niche and act as "mediator." In order to do this, it also prints "congratulations." When a conflict is resolved, the user can share the good news on the same site where the complaint was made.
"Orange, for example, has the most complaints, but also the most congratulations," says its founder. Carlos García Cabañas' complaint to Iberia also became a congratulatory post: "Thanks to publishing this complaint, Iberia paid me over 1,000 euros. It's a shame we have to post our complaints online to get them to pay attention to us."

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