In Laos, the legal means to achieve consumer protection are limited; the main piece of legislation, the Law on Consumer Protection No. 02/NA, dated June 30, 2010, enunciates a series of principles that are too general to be implemented effectively in practice. Given this context, on June 4, 2020, the Official Gazette of the Ministry of Justice in Laos published the Decision on Protection of Consumers Using Telecommunications and Internet Services no. 1061/MPT, dated May 25, 2020.
Although this decision is not exhaustive, it represents the country’s first attempt to ensure that its regulators address consumer protection issues in the telecommunications sector specifically. In particular, the decision provides a dispute resolution process involving the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications for disputes between telecommunications and internet service providers and their respective consumers. In addition, the decision regulates sales prospecting techniques (e.g., cold calling) to be used for commercial purposes.
Resolution of Disputes between Consumers and Providers of Telecommunications and Internet Services
First of all, the decision recommends amicable resolution to disputes between service providers and their consumers who feel they have been treated unfairly (e.g., in invoicing issues) or find that the received goods or services are not of the expected quality. The decision instructs service providers in such instances to offer a solution to the dispute within seven working days of receiving a consumer’s complaint. Both parties must record meeting minutes on their negotiation of the service provider’s solution, if applicable, for their resolution to be formalized, and the meeting minutes, as well as the consumer’s complaint, must be prepared in written form (e.g., written documents, emails, etc.). If consumers are not satisfied with the amicable negotiations, they can file a complaint with relevant department under the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications—which is to consider the complaint within 10 working days of receiving it.
Subsequently, the decision provides that the authority must liaise with the provider of telecommunications or internet services and require them to clarify the dispute within 10 working days. Upon receiving the service provider’s clarifications, the authority is required to report them to the consumer within seven working days. The decision empowers the authority to supervise the parties’ resolution of the dispute throughout this process, and summon both parties to find a solution to solve the dispute, if necessary.
Unsolicited Commercial Communications
The decision also takes seriously the nuisance that unsolicited commercial communications (e.g., phone calls or messages) can present to consumers, by restricting these communications as follows:
- Such calls and messages are prohibited from 8:00 to 17:00 on Monday to Friday.
- No more than 10 unsolicited commercial communications are allowed per month, per individual.
- No more than two unsolicited commercial communications are allowed per day.
The decision elaborates that “any individual or legal entity” intending to use unsolicited commercial communications for their goods or services must receive the consent of the telecommunications or internet service provider of the prospects they plan to call. The decision does not offer guidance on how the relevant service provider’s consent may be obtained, but assigns a duty to the telecommunications and internet service providers to ensure that unsolicited communication commercials are made by authorized persons, and also to monitor the distribution of unsolicited commercial messages to ensure that these limits are not breached.
Consumers who receive unsolicited commercial communications can file a complaint with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications and resolve subsequent disputes with the relevant service provider. The decision also notes that consumers can voice complaints or seek guidance via one of the following official hotlines:
- 1510 – Ministry of Industry and Commerce
- 1516 – Prime Minister’s Office
- 156 – National Assembly
The Ministry of Industry and Commerce’s website (www.lcp.gov.la) is also expected to become an available channel for complaints in the future.
The decision does not provide clear sanctions for infringement of its provisions, merely stating that individuals or legal entities infringing its provisions are exposed to warnings, “education,” or compensation commensurate to the damages that are incurred. Usually, the authorities’ first warnings are official statements of a certain delay in bringing the infringer’s “illegal behaviors” into compliance with the country’s laws and regulations, while their second warnings are usually issued with heavier sanctions. “Education” (i.e., training programs) consists of the authorities’ explanation of the regulation that has been violated and guidance to implement it. If deemed necessary, the authorities will summon the infringer to participate in this process.
As for compensation, without further explanation we understand that the decision may refer to invoices related to services that are not rendered, or are poorly rendered. However, in practice the authorities may find it difficult to demand compensation from infringers in other situations (e.g., unsolicited commercial communications), because the decision does not provide guidance in this respect. Accordingly, if a consumer files a complaint against an infringer for unsolicited commercial communications, compensation for the violation cannot be guaranteed under the current regulations.
The decision is not exhaustive, and certain provisions will require additional information or practice before they can be implemented effectively. For example, the dispute resolution process between service providers and consumers would benefit from further clarification of the requirements for consumer complaints and meeting minutes. Also, a clearer explanation of the sanctions would make them easier to implement and deter infringement of the decision.
Nevertheless, this regulation is the first of its kind in Laos with an aim to resolve disputes between providers of telecommunications and internet services and consumers—even going beyond the direct actions of service providers themselves by addressing issues pertaining to spam email sent over their networks—and it provides a framework to restrict unfair treatment of consumers by these service providers. The publication of this decision is a welcome step in the ongoing development of Laos’ consumer protection regulatory regime, and may be refined further with future amendments.