The Consumer Reports CEO on fighting for protections in our online world

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon May 22, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

The Consumer Reports CEO on fighting for protections in our online world

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon May 22, 2020
Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

We’re spending more time online these days, relying on the internet to work, learn and connect with each other. But the hard-won regulations that protect consumers in the analog world haven’t always caught up with the rapidly changing digital marketplace.

The issue has been thrown into stark relief during the COVID-19 pandemic as scams, opportunism and misinformation has flourished in our online communities.

Consumer Reports has been tracking how consumers are faring during the pandemic. Survey results show that many Americans are delaying planned purchases or abandoning those plans altogether.

“I think the headline is frailty, economic and social frailty,” Marta Tellado, the president and CEO of Consumer Reports, told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: Now people may not understand this about Consumer Reports — you cover important issues and test products, but you’re also looking at public policy, especially during this time of COVID-19. I mean, there are a lot of things that are going to change, and policy changes have winners and losers.

Marta Tellado: We have winners and losers, and I think one of the things that is stark in COVID-19 is that here we are transitioning to an online world and an online marketplace, and many of the consumer protections and the hard-fought battles that we did in the analog world don’t apply to this new world that we’re living in now.

So think about it: We have 50 million schoolchildren now that are supposed to be learning online, but we know that one-third of Americans don’t even have a reliable fast broadband connection. And in our survey, we found that 80% feel and agree that the internet has got to be as important as electricity and water. And that’s up from 61% just three years ago.

So, you know, we’re experiencing it now because we’re at home, working from home, searching for jobs at home, relying on telemedicine. We can’t live our lives in this moment without an affordable connection to the internet. And that’s one of the ways in which I think we need to see some real change.

Brancaccio: And you’ve been trying to hold social media’s feet to the fire here in terms of accuracy of ads?

Tellado: We did an experiment with Facebook, and we recently drew up a number of false and misleading ads about the coronavirus, including one that made a case for drinking bleach, and we submitted it to Facebook. They reviewed it. All seven of the ads they approved. Now, of course, we never posted those ads, but it really makes you wonder — how much more harmful misinformation in this environment of uncertainty is showing up?

Brancaccio: I’m careful not to see this nightmare we’re going through as an opportunity. However, there could be social improvements that grow out of this. Do you see some possibilities of ultimately us getting to a better place if we get through this?

Tellado: I do. And in the end, my hope of what comes out of this is a more trustworthy marketplace. One where we can rely on accountable institutions and credible information, which is what I think the public is hungry for and one that’s responsive to them and it’s responsive to them by default. I think that’s what flattens the curve in a pandemic.

Brancaccio: Now, you’ve been reaching out to people, to consumers, to find out how we are faring. It’s a lot of fascinating data here, but something that stood out is just how many people have delayed some big expenditures or even canceled some big stuff they had been planning.

Tellado: COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact. And I think the headline is frailty, economic and social frailty. And when one-third of U.S. adults have lost their wages or their income due to the pandemic, what we’re seeing is that, when asked, that means they’re putting a pause button on their planned expenses, making tough decisions.

Brancaccio: Yeah, but it’s quite stark to actually see the data though. Fifty-seven percent have delayed a large home improvement project, 18% have cancelled it outright? I mean, elective medical procedures — yes, many people are delaying, 70% for obvious reasons, but 19% have thrown in the towel. They’re just not going to get an elective medical procedure. That’s quite a decision.

Tellado: Well, I think what it underscores is a tremendous amount of uncertainty. And so they are just hitting pause and they don’t know which way this is going to go.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

New COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. are on the rise. How are Americans reacting?

Johns Hopkins University reports the seven-day average of new cases hit 68,767 on Sunday  — a record — eclipsing the previous record hit in late July during the second, summer wave of infection. A funny thing is happening with consumers though: Even as COVID-19 cases rise, Americans don’t appear to be shying away from stepping indoors to shop or eat or exercise. Morning Consult asked consumers how comfortable they feel going out to eat, to the shopping mall or on a vacation. And their willingness has been rising. Surveys find consumers’ attitudes vary by age and income, and by political affiliation, said Chris Jackson, who heads up polling at Ipsos.

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

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