Research and testing by Which? regularly finds large numbers of unsafe consumer products being sold via sellers on online marketplaces, ranging from smoke alarms to child car seats. Online marketplaces have become a common way for millions of shoppers to buy online from an expanding pool of global sellers: 9 in 10 people have bought consumer goods this way. People value the lower prices and wide choice that these marketplaces can offer, but consumer protections have failed to keep pace and fall short of more traditional retailers.
Many people assume that online marketplaces are responsible for ensuring that the products sold on their platforms are safe, removing unsafe products from sale and notifying customers when something goes wrong. But this is not the case – legally it is the sellers that consumers largely have to rely on to assure safety. Our survey of online marketplace shoppers in September 2019 found that only 21% were aware that online marketplaces have no legal responsibility for overseeing product safety on their sites. Online marketplaces, which include Amazon Marketplace, Facebook Marketplace, eBay and wish.com, for example, are exempt from liability unless they are aware of illegal content. This leaves consumers vulnerable, particularly when many of the sellers and products originate outside the UK. 70% of marketplace users think the law needs changing so that marketplaces are legally responsible.
Some marketplaces have voluntary commitments and internal policies focused on product safety, but these are largely reactive, limited in scope and vary depending on the company. This Wild West of product safety, repeatedly exposed by Which? testing requires a more proactive approach by the marketplaces and a robust response by regulators to meet consumers’ expectations and ensure their safety.
Regulation is needed to strengthen the legal responsibilities of online marketplaces and ensure that public authorities have adequate powers, tools, and resources to require action from marketplaces when consumers are put at risk. The voluntary nature of current checks by marketplaces fails to recognise their role as the primary interface for consumers with the technical, as well as commercial, ability to hold their suppliers to account for consumer safety. Clearer government guidance is needed while this legislation is being drafted and implemented, in line with the Codes of Practice envisaged in the Online Harms White Paper.