Companies that are planning pan-European e-commerce ventures may have to comply with legislation designed to ease the resolution of cross-border disputes.
It is hoped the legislation, which the European Parliament will be debating on 20-21 September, will simplify the situation where, for example, a Spanish customer uses the Internet to buy a pair of shoes from a British company but then finds them to be defective.
If the legislation is agreed companies will face having to introduce comprehensive complaints procedures by the end of the year.
Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis, who is spearheading the plan, said MEPs had been looking for regulations that would give consumers some redress, but at the same time would not deter small businesses trading online.
The answer they came up with was alternative dispute resolution. "This would be an informal way of dealing with complaints that would cut across national barriers," said Wallis. "The key to it will be online alternative dispute resolution."
Practically, this online alternative dispute resolution will operate as a complaints system that dissatisfied customers could seek redress through.
Wallis said this would mean neither the customer nor the business would have to appear in court, with all the ensuing costs that would be magnified by dealing with foreign legal systems.
Wallis said companies would be encouraged to develop their own complaints system, or belong to an enterprise that ran a complaints system - either way the companies would legally have to meet certain European Commission criteria if they wished to continue trading.
Wallis added, "It shouldn't be possible for European businesses to hide behind the legal system of another country."
Eventually, the plan is to have a central complaints bureau through which all European disputes could be resolved.