The Horror of e-Commerce

Raman Swamy

A woman died on May 31. She received a letter from e-payment company PayPal—"We have received notice that you are deceased. You have committed breach of condition 15.4(c) of your agreement with PayPal Credit. This breach is not capable of remedy".

This is a real incident widely covered in the British press. It happened in a country which is one of the world's leaders in high-technology platforms for financial services, online retail and high-value international commerce.

If such inhumanity, such insanity can happen in such a hi-tech advanced economy, what about India? India, where more than 54 percent of the population does not know how to even operate a computer let alone make cashless e-payment for online retail purchases. According to the National Sample Survey report, 46 percent of Indians of 14 years and above can operate computer—in the 14-29 age group, computer literacy levels are 18 percent in rural areas and 49 percent in urban areas.

In spite of this sobering reality, the government is making a big push towards digitisation with great fanfare and loud claims of amazing progress. The latest buzz of excitement is the new e-Payment Policy that will "catapult India into the elite club of cashless economies" and enable the country to "become a global leader in online retail".

The level of anticipation and exhilaration is almost intoxicating. Numerous meetings have already been held between industry players and government officials.

The final draft of National Policy for the e-Commerce Sector is expected to be announced very soon. The thrust of the new policy will be "India First"—making a strong case for championing 'Indian' online enterprise rather than foreign-owned e-commerce majors operating in India.

Some of the key recommendations of the Swadeshi e-commerce blueprint include protecting the "common man" from being exploited by big group companies of e-commerce players who could manipulate prices. Also, to be prohibited will be bulk purchases of branded goods like mobile phones, white goods and fashion products. Special inventory concessions will also be allowed to Indian-owned online websites for goods that are 100% domestically produced.

As expected, there are as many voices singing the praises of the big leap as there are groans and whining sounds from those who feel they may not get a level playing field. The All India Vendors Association (AIOVA) has, for instance, gone into a deep sulk-saying it will not accept the policy because the domestic sellers lobby was kept out the consultation process. "We were not invited to the discussions even though we wrote several times to minister Suresh Prabhu. They don't seem to be interested in making Indian domestic sellers a part of the discussion. "We won't be accepting the policy", the AIOVA (which has 3,500 online smaller sellers as members) said in a statement.

The big players have no such complaints. E-commerce companies such as Snapdeal, Paytm MakeMyTrip, Bharat Matrimony. Urban Clap, Oyo and Ola etc., are all thrilled and expectant. From the government side, senior officials from the Commerce and Finance ministries, Departments of Economic Affairs and Information Technology, DIPP, Competition Commission of India and various associations like Internet and Mobile Association of India, FICCI and Cll, are all equally beaming with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

It is being said that last-minute fine- tuining is still going on to accommodate the views and suggestions of important bodies like CAIT (Confederation of All India Traders) who have demanded a more level paying field for smaller online retail vendors.

There is also a nagging issue that e-retailers both big and small are viewing as a nuisance—privacy. On record, everybody pledges to abide by the spirit of the landmark Supreme Court judgement on Right to Privacy. Off the record they grumble—"There s too much emphasis on data privacy. It complicates our operations. How are we to acquire and control the personal data of our customers beyond a point? To provide good, fast and effective services we have to have the data—that data needs to be available in real time at all our access points. Firewalls to protect data from being misused will only hamper our competitiveness".

The biggest bugbear however is the proposed prohibition of the Cash-on-Delivery system. This has sparked off a controversy. There are some who say: "If we are going digital, then what is the need for cash-on-delivery? Every time a payment is made on COD, it gives e-commerce companies ample chances to evade supplies. If it's digital the payment will be recorded and companies cannot evade liability of tax". Others feel it will be a major disincentive for consumers and could lead to a sharp fall in online purchases from household customers.

Domestic companies also have another fear—unless there is a specific provision to regulate foreign products, e-commerce will become a back door to infiltrate the retail market with imported goods.

The government, in its wisdom, is thinking of setting up a nodal agency or impose more rules and laws to ensure a level playing field where domestic companies don't feel threatened by international players coming in—while at the same time not bringing in self-defeating restrictive or protectionist measures.

While all these enthralling last-minute finishing touches are being given to the 'revolutionary' e-Commerce policy, the ground reality in the country is that the technology infrastructure is neither secure nor stable. The traumatic experience with the GST e-filing during the last 12 months indicates many crashes, disputes and online traffic jams.

Apart from the fact that in a land where 27.6 crore people still live a hand-to-mouth existence (according to the same World Bank which has declared India to be the sixth largest economy in the world), the real issue is whether even these who are much above the poverty line, including the middle and intermediate classes, are far removed from the concept of a cashless economy.

Like the English woman who was pulled up for 'breach of contract" by an e-payment company even after her death, many ordinary Indians might soon find themselves in violation of the rules of the cyber-commerce world.
Incidentally, after the matter was raised in the media, the company tendered an explanation for their atrocious letter to a deceased customer—they cited three possible reasons that might have caused the error—a software bug, a bad letter template, or a human error could be the cause behind this, they said.

In a vast country like India, there would be lakhs of software bugs and an uncountable number of human errors.

Vol. 51, No.7, Aug 19 - 25, 2018