Ecommerce giants Alibaba, Amazon, eBay and Rakuten have agreed to speed up the removal of dangerous goods being sold on their online marketplaces within the European Union.

The EU’s executive body, the Commission, said the four companies have committed to responding to notifications on dangerous products from Member State authorities within 2 working days, and to take action on notices from customers within 5 working days.

Although the pledge is not legally binding. But the Commission is clearly hoping that companies can be persuaded to self-regulate in the first instance, given the ever-present possibility of laws being drafted to more tightly legally rule their activities.

In a statement welcoming the move, the EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, Vĕra Jourová, called on other other marketplace to join the initiative, saying: “More and more people in the EU are shopping online. E-commerce has opened up new possibilities for consumers, offering them more choice at lower prices. Consumers should be just as safe when they buy online, as when they buy in a shop.”

The Commission says online sales in the EU represented a fifth of the total sales in 2016 — a percentage that’s expected to increase in the coming years.

The Product Safety Pledge covers non-food consumer products being sold by third parties on online marketplaces, and includes a commitment to provide a clear way for customers to report dangerous product listings and also have an internal mechanism for take-down procedures.

“The ultimate goal is to improve the detection of unsafe products marketed in the EU before they are sold to consumers or as soon thereafter as possible, and to improve consumer protection,” it writes. “These commitments will go beyond what is already established in the EU legislation, including those on product safety.”

Other components of the pledge state the companies will:

  • Cooperate with authorities and set up a process aimed at proactively removing banned product groups as appropriate
  • Put in place measures to act against repeat offenders offering dangerous products in cooperation with authorities
  • Take measures aimed at preventing the reappearance of dangerous product listings already removed
  • Explore the potential use of new technologies and innovation to improve the detection of unsafe products

So there are potentially some startup opportunities around enhancing detection systems.

While the Commission making efforts to limit access to dangerous goods online is unlikely to be too controversial, it has generally been pushing for proactive or radically rapid removals of various types of problem content, and wading into controversy as a result.

Its approach to copyrighted content has attracted the most controversy, with critics arguing it’s regressive and wildly disproportionate.

Yet despite vocal opposition from multiple corners of the digital ecosystem, earlier this month EU lawmakers moved a step closer to requiring all user generated content be copyright pre-filtered prior to being uploaded — apparently comfortable with the idea that meme-makers might have to go through an appeals process just to get their remixed snark unblocked. 

However support for the Commission’s approach to regulating online content generally seems widespread among EU member states.

And on the terrorist propaganda content front, the UK government has been pushing even harder, for proactive removals — unveiling an AI tool in February that it said could be used to automatically detect ISIS propaganda. (Though it has not forced any companies to use it.)

The Commission hasn’t gone so far where terrorist content is concerned — but it’s one-hour rule-of-thumb for terrorist takedowns is getting pretty close. On hate speech content generally it continues to apply pressure on platforms to respond more quickly, with the omnipresent threat that if they don’t keep up it could step in and legislate — as Germany already has.

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