Navigating the digital High Street

The latest version of the Opticians Act was passed in the same year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Is it time for a reboot?

Week 26 illegal practice
Getty/Oscar Wong

Janet Jackson and Milli Vanilli were playing in the clubs, leg warmers and neon colours were the height of fashion and British scientist Tim Berners-Lee was tinkering away on an invention he named the World Wide Web.

This is 1989 – the year that the latest iteration of the Opticians Act came into force.

The fact that the definition of illegal practice is enshrined in a law from a time when a ‘portable’ computer weighed 16 pounds has given some pause for thought.
Can concerns around the risks of online sales be addressed through powers conveyed in a pre-internet age?

On Wednesday, discussions at the General Optical Council (GOC) meeting centred on the limitations of the optical regulator’s remit when it comes to illegal practice.
Several responses to the GOC’s 12-week consultation on a new illegal practice protocol highlighted that the realities of the online market do not match the current legislation.

“The protocol is by default the application of our current legislation which we know many in the sector deem to be unsatisfactory in several areas including illegal practice,” GOC lawyer Claire Bond highlighted.

While the scope of the new protocol is relatively narrow, broader sector concerns around outdated legislation are being addressed through the optical regulator’s call for evidence on the Opticians Act.

GOC council member Tim Parkinson highlighted that the GOC has role to play in educating the public in what they should expect from an online platform.
“It is a very different environment to going to a brick-and-mortar High Street practice,” he shared.

As well as setting out how the public is protected and the safe use of optical appliances, Parkinson suggested creating a guide for the public on what a good online seller looks like.

He also recommended making it clear to patients what they should do if they feel like they have been subject to illegal practice.

Bond shared that the GOC recognises the need to develop a broader communication plan around its approach to illegal practice.

“As part of our ongoing approach to illegal practice we are working with online platforms to raise awareness of our legislation and include relevant sections of the act on sales information pages so that users are aware of the legislation in place to keep them safe,” she said.

GOC council member Josie Forte emphasised the need for the regulation of illegal practice online to extend beyond products.

“I’m sure over the next decade we will be talking about services provided. Let’s have one eye on the future and understand that services will feature more,” she said.

The importance of taking a collaborative approach to working with online retailers was emphasised by GOC council member Roshni Samra.

“Online sellers seem to have a bad reputation but it won’t be long before we see them sitting alongside the traditional opticians,” she said.

“Everybody needs to take accountability to tackle this issue,” Samra added.

Those wishing to make a submission on the GOC’s call for evidence on the Opticians Act can do so through the GOC’s online consultation hub, with a closing date of 18 July.