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Monday, 14 November 2016

Will Regulatory Technical Standards Slow The Pace Of Payments Innovation?

Under the new Payment Services Directive (PSD2), the European Banking Authority (EBA) is tasked with producing 'regulatory technical standards' to be followed by those with certain obligations, including how payment service providers (PSPs) must authenticate customers and communicate with each other. But it seems this process and the standards themselves are acting as a brake on innovation and related investment.

The EBA consulted on its proposed regulatory technical standards for authentication and communication between August and October, with a revised set due in the coming months.

PSD2 requires PSPs to apply "strong customer authentication" where "the payer... accesses its payment account online, initiates an electronic payment transaction or carries out any action through a remote channel which may imply a risk of payment fraud or other abuses."

But two big issues raised by PSD2 are (1) how each type of payment is initiated; and (2) who actually initiates it.

The EBA believes card payments are initiated by the cardholder as payer, but fudges the issue somewhat by requiring the card acquirers (i.e. the PSP of the merchants) to require their merchants to support strong authentication for all payment transactions. The added complication is where a payment transaction is initiated by the payee, but the payer's consent is given "through a remote channel which may imply a risk of payment fraud or other abuses".

There is a view, however, that card payments are among those that are in fact initiated by the payee (the merchant), who is not in fact the 'payee' of the cardholder at all but is paid by the card acquirer to which the merchant submits its transactions. The cardholder just pays the card issuer. This is all bound up in fundamental problems with the definitions of "payment transaction", "payer" and "payee" in both the PSD and PSD2; and the fact that card acquiring works through a series of back-to-back contracts that do not involve any direct contract between the buyer and the seller at all concerning payment processing. Indeed, a challenge for the UK's implementation plans is that there is a Court of Appeal decision which supports this view. 

In these respects, PSD2 appears to set up a 'legal fiction', which (despite taking a somewhat purposive approach in the 'fudge' explained above) the EBA appears to insist on in language at the end of its consultation paper: "all the requirements under consultation apply irrespective of the underlying obligations and organisational arrangements between" the various types of PSP, payers and payees. In other words, we have a weird situation where the law and related standards are to be applied regardless of how payment systems and processes really work.

Not only can this lead to situations where, for example, some banks insist that the PSD does not cover card acquiring, but it can also cause over-compliance to avoid doubt and other restraints on innovation.

While distinctions concerning how payments are inititiated and by whom might seem to matter less in the context of security measures to be adopted by PSPs - since everyone is interested in reducing financial crime - it is absolutely critical in the context of software and services that contribute in any way to payments being "initiated" and whether the suppliers or users of such software and services must be authorised as "payment initiation service providers" or perhaps even as the issuers of payment instruments

It will be very interesting to see how the Treasury proposes to address these problems in transposing PSD2 itself, although it's more likely the FCA will be left to explain how to comply, assuming the Treasury declines to take a purposive approach to EU law and simply copies the language of PSD2 into UK law (a process known as 'gold-plating').

There are numerous other glitches in the technical standards that have been identified by respondents, too numerous to mention here, but which it is hoped will be reconsidered in the next version - not that such standards should ever be considered as 'final' or set for all time. Indeed, an overarching problem seems to be that in the EBA's attempts to drag our legacy payments infrastructure into the 21st century, insufficient attention has been given to existing and potential alternative security technology - even in cases where incumbents are seeking to leapfrog the limitations of legacy systems.

Meanwhile, a year has slipped by since PSD2 was approved and the standards themselves are only due to take effect in October 2018 'at the very earliest', by which time they are likely to be thoroughly out of step with commercially available technology. 

While old systems may need to be accommodated to some degree, surely the pace of payments innovation should not be tied to the slowest animals in the herd?