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European Legal Studies Institute (ELSI)

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From Smart Technologies to Smart Consumer Laws

Comparative Perspectives from Germany and the UK

The 3-year project aims at mapping emerging consumer issues in the Internet of Things (IoT). A joint research team from the Universities of Bonn, Osnabrück, Stirling and Warwick will critically assess the extent to which consumer laws in Germany and the United Kingdom address these issues, scoping the potential for mutual learning between the two legal systems, and recommending changes to the current regulatory response. In doing so, the project will explore how consumers of smart devices can be empowered through law reform and legal design.

In this perspective, the research will address four overarching themes:

(1) Things as a Service: The emergence of the IoT challenges the traditional goods-services dichotomy on which consumer laws are built. Are existing consumer laws fit for purpose in a socio-technical setting increasingly shaped by long-term contracts and new data-driven monetization models

(2) Regulation ‘by Bricking’ and the Contractual Quagmire: In the IoT, smart products are persistently linked to sellers or suppliers who can remotely and automatically discontinue functionalities, downgrade the device, and even ‘brick’ it. An additional layer of complexity is added due to the growing number of actors involved in complex IoT systems (e.g. connected cars). How should these new types of techno-legal private ordering be regulated?

(3) Liability in the Cloud of Things: Alongside the complexity of the contractual relations in IoT systems, the emergence of smart services that depend on the automated interplay of multiple connected objects raises pressing issues of product liability. To what extent do existing liability rules provide adequate solutions for IoT-enabled injuries?

(4) Internet of Personalized Things: Smart objects can be used to profile and target consumers with unparalleled precision and efficacy. In this perspective, IoT-enabled profiling allows for personalization of products, prices or terms of service. At the same time, IoT applications could enable a more targeted use of consumer protection technologies. What does IoT-enabled personalization mean for the concept of the ‘average consumer’ and the enforcement of consumer laws?

These themes will be comparatively examined in relation to three use cases: smart home, wearables, and connected cars. The project is jointly led by Professor Christoph Busch (University of Osnabrück), Professor Louisa Specht-Riemenschneider (University of Bonn), Professor Christian Twigg-Flesner (University of Warwick) and Professor Guido Noto La Diega (University of Stirling).

The project is jointly funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and and the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the UK-German Funding Initiative in the Humanities (2022-2025).