Google may not respond to customer inquiries to the email address listed in the imprint with an automatically generated standard response that merely refers consumers to help pages and other contact options. This was decided by the Berlin Appellate Court following an action brought by the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv) against the Internet group, thus confirming the decision of the Regional Court.
Consumers have a right to be able to reach online providers by e-mail and contact them easily. A company must not refuse this communication by not reading customer enquiries in the first place.
Email address must not be a dead link
According to the German Telemedia Act, commercial operators of websites are obliged to enable their customers to establish rapid electronic contact and direct communication – for example, for questions regarding the contract or the products offered. You will need to enter an e-mail address.
However, the address mentioned by Google in the imprint turned out to be a “dead mailbox”. Customers who sent an e-mail to email@example.com received an automatically generated reply with the following message: “Please note that due to the large number of inquiries e-mails received at this e-mail address cannot be read and taken note of”. In the reply e-mail, Google referred above all to its help pages, where contact forms could also be accessed “if necessary”.
The court agreed with the opinion of the vzbv that this handling of customer inquiries violates the Telemedia Act. The provision of an e-mail address that states that Google is not aware of the content of the incoming e-mails does not enable individual communication. On the contrary, it is refused. Even with a standard letter pre-formulated for all cases of inquiries, the customer’s communication concern is ultimately only rejected.
Help pages and contact forms are not sufficient
The judges also made it clear that contact forms, online help and user forums do not replace the legally required option for the customer to contact the company by e-mail.
Writing an e-mail to the address given in the imprint is quick and easy. Contact forms, on the other hand, are often difficult to find on the websites. As a rule, users first have to click their way through to the form – if there is one for their particular request at all. The documentation of their request is also more difficult for consumers.
The judgment of the Court of Appeal is not yet final. Because of the fundamental importance of the case, the court allowed an appeal to the Federal Supreme Court.
We are very excited about the impact this ruling will have on other online providers. Thus the contact possibilities to many airlines are partly very well hidden in the depths of the web pages. Only those who search stubbornly will find a working mail address with luck. Not infrequently, the e-mail addresses provided by the airlines for customer enquiries lead quite boldly and without detours into nirvana. We are curious whether this will have to change soon!