German state-level lawmakers agree that consumers should have the right to return mobile apps. But changing the law may do little to help consumers if companies don't do their bit.
Hundreds of thousands of mobile apps are downloaded and purchased every day.
More than 50 billion apps have been downloaded from Apple's App Store, according to the company earlier this week. And its closest rival, Google, also says it is approaching the 50 billion mark for downloaded apps.
Mobile devices running Apple's iOS and Google's Android systems account for the lion's share of the market.
Help on the way for not so 'appy consumers?
This staggering increase in the number of apps that are downloaded, and an increase in ecommerce overall, may be something to cheer in the tech sector, but it is causing some concern among lawmakers in the EU.
A study conducted for the EU Commission suggests Europeans are losing 64 billion euros (82 billion dollars) a year due to a lack of clear consumer protection regulation for online products like apps, software and music.
The rules that apply to clothes and other products don't apply to apps.
Once downloaded from Apple's app store or Blackberry's App World, "the sale is final" and there is no clear right of return - while Google Play (for Android) gives users just 15 minutes to return an app.
But German consumers may soon get the help they need. At the annual conference for state consumer protection ministers, lawmakers have agreed unanimously on the right to return mobile apps.
"We want consumers to have the right to return apps if they can't be used," Lucia Puttrich, the consumer protection minister of the German state of Hesse, told DW at the close of the conference on Friday (17.05.13).
What applies to other products should apply to digital goods, she added.
"And we also want it to be mandatory for there to be a demo version for every app, which allows the consumer to see whether they can use it," Puttrich explained.
The fault lies elsewhere
But efforts to change or introduce new regulations may fall short. Léon Molenberg, a senior policy consultant at Thuiswinkel, the Dutch federation for ecommerce retailers, believes the problem in EU countries like Germany and the Netherlands has less to do with the rules.
"There are companies, which don't comply with these [national and EU] rules. It's not the rules that are defective, but it's the behavior of some big companies," Molenberg says.
Of the 42 million contracts that Thuiswinkel's members had with consumers in 2011, the Dutch policy consultant says there were only 70 complaints.
"Apple is one of the [global] competitors, which doesn't care about a single consumer rule in the world," he says pointing to the terms and conditions that users have to accept before they can join the App Store.
Silhouette of rights: Puttrich wants more consumer rights for people buying apps, but it won't happen soon
Users sign away the rights that EU regulation provides when they accept Apple's terms and conditions. By agreeing to Apple's terms and conditions, which state that "All sales and rentals of products are final," Europeans effectively relinquish their rights in EU law, which gives them two weeks to return a download if they are unhappy with it.
No solution in sight
Despite the consensus among Germany's state consumer protection ministers that apps should be treated like other products, Germans will have to wait months before anything happens.
"The Federal Consumer Minister Ms. [Ilse] Aigner has stated very clearly that a relevant decision on a law won't be possible during this legislative period," said Puttrich.
With Germany holding national elections in September, consumers will have to wait until a new federal government is formed before anything is done about the right to return apps.
So, for now, think twice before you buy that app.