The consultationThe Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office consulted on a joint white paper on online harms between April and July 2019. The white paper sets out the UK government’s plans for a world-leading package of online safety measures that also supports innovation and a thriving digital economy.
The consultation covered online content (including terrorist propaganda and extreme pornography), actions (such as cyberbullying and trolling) and the sale of illegal goods (including weapons and drugs). We responded to the consultation to highlight the issue of the illegal internet supply of medical devices such as contact lenses.
the aop's responseOur concerns are about vendors of medical devices who use websites based outside the UK to avoid legal safeguards that exist to protect the public. This is not raised as a specific issue in your consultation, but our comments may be helpful to you in illustrating the nature of this problem.
In line with changing consumer habits in other areas of retail, more people than ever are purchasing spectacles and contact lenses online, and this number is only going to increase. A 2018 Mintel report said that 18% of people reported buying glasses or lenses online and of those who said they have never bought glasses online, 45% planned on doing so in the future.
Spectacles and contact lenses are medical devices which can harm people if they are badly made or wrongly used. It is legal to supply spectacles and contact lenses online as long as the supplier checks that the patient has a valid prescription or lens specification, and (in the case of contact lenses) if a registered professional oversees the process. In addition, the dispensing of spectacles to under 16s must be carried out by a registered professional. However, these conditions aren’t always met, creating a real risk of harm to the public.
The regulator for the optical sector, the General Optical Council (GOC), is able to tackle companies based in the UK who fail to comply with the law. However, many online suppliers now deliberately use overseas websites to serve UK customers without complying with the legal restrictions on the supply of spectacles and contact lenses. We realise that UK regulators face practical and legal challenges in tackling overseas businesses that don’t comply with UK legal requirements. However, our view is that not enough is being done to tackle illegal practice. We therefore think that a new regulatory regime which can address problems with overseas websites, as discussed in the White Paper, would be a very helpful step forward.
Our position statement on illegal practice (in relation to the sale of contact lenses and spectacles) includes more detail on this issue.