Many Australians have embraced the ‘sharing economy’ such as Uber and AirBnb, but how many people realise when they tick the terms and conditions, they’re effectively giving away their rights to accessible and affordable dispute resolution?

According to Griffith Law School international law and consumer protection experts Professor Mary Keyes and Associate Professor Therese Wilson, more needs to be done to protect Australian consumers when it comes to dealing with foreign-owned companies.

“If someone has a dispute against Airbnb for example, they can only bring it to court in the Republic of Ireland and how many people can afford to travel there to do so?,’’ Professor Keyes said.

“Meanwhile Uber’s Ts & Cs mandate that arbitration be conducted in Amsterdam and Facebook’s terms say you can only sue them in the Californian courts.”

Associate Professor Wilson said that by providing for arbitration as a form of dispute resolution in many of the Ts and Cs examined, consumers were being deprived of their rights to go to court including, in most cases, their right to bring a class action whereby consumers can join together to pursue small amounts in an affordable way.

Professor Keyes cites a 2018 case where the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia dismissed an appeal by Valve, the US-based company that owns Steam, a popular online gaming platform.

The appeal was against the 2016 decision of Justice James Edelman who held that Valve had breached the Australian Consumer Law by misleading Australian consumers about the availability of refunds for the sale of faulty games, and imposed a penalty of AUD$3 million.

“The case is important not only to the many Australian subscribers to Steam but also because of its implications for the large and growing number of consumers who regularly purchase goods and access services from foreign companies like Airbnb, Facebook, and Uber,’’ Professor Keyes said.

She said understanding how consumer protection laws apply in the international context is complicated and consumers rarely pursue claims because the expense entailed invariably exceeds the value of the products in question.

“The refunds the three gamers sought from Valve were for US$49.99, US$16, and US$13.35. So, it’s easy to see why consumers often do not pursue claims against suppliers and all the more so if they had to sue or arbitrate in a foreign country.”

Consumers can’t do much to protect themselves either

as they can’t change the terms and conditions.

“And suppliers use very similar terms and conditions, so there’s not much point in trying to ‘shop around’ for better terms,’’ Professor Keyes warns.

“Consumers’ best hope, if something goes wrong, is that the regulator will take action, as happened in the case brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission against Valve.”