Fiona Woods, President
On behalf rather BCA, I attended this conference in September 2023 presented by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN). Its vision is for communication services that are trusted, inclusive, accessible and available for all.
Day 1: Consumer forums
The first day was open only to consumers.
The first consumer forum explored the frontiers of consumer harm:
- Though there will always be people who are vulnerable in a system designed for the majority, individuals will not always disclose their vulnerability and it may not be obvious.
- Not all improvements are available to all.
- Privacy concerns arise from target marketing and location sharing, and manipulation by design.
- The internet of things means we are often connected through multiple devices, so we are always vulnerable and we forget they are always collecting data.
- Many devices, such as doorbells and Alexa etc., have weak security such as default passwords.
- Driverless vehicles and car apps are another source of data. This is a form of consumer manipulation, including for people who are not making informed choices, such as children.
- Minimum standards are needed to protect consumers.
- Privacy by default and privacy by design could be incorporated, along with law reform.
- The current consumer system works for traditional products, not digital goods.
- Communication devices are now much more than telephones.
- Technological abuse is strongly linked to domestic and financial abuse. Old tactics, new tools.
- People won’t always disclose or recognise abuse. Automatic data match can exacerbate this.
- Whether or not the abuser can benefit financially, often the victim bears the harm of resolving the situation.
- Consumers should be believed as experts in their own situation and companies should assume hidden vulnerabilities.
- Financial and economic abuse can happen to anyone, but for people with intersecting vulnerabilities, the consequences can be greater and the access to justice is less.
- Unenforceable guidelines count for nothing and legislation is a bare minimum.
- Even a good response to harm does not remedy the fact that the product enabled harm.
- The banking sector has had to respond because of the Banking Royal Commission – this has not happened for telcos.
- Harm should not need to be front page news before action is taken, as in banking or now aviation.
- Consumer protection is not just “nice to have”.
- Consumer advocates talking to each other can expose harms and trends.
- Coalitions can send strong signals.
- Academics can assist from a research perspective and can be useful when financial resources are limited.
- Liability for harm would be a stronger incentive for companies to protect people and design safer products.
- Smaller companies with no reputation to protect need these incentives, including keeping pace with developing scams.
- Currently, if you voluntarily provide details, albeit through a mistaken belief that you are dealing with a genuine company, you are financially liable.
- The burden of safety, accessibility or privacy must be with the producer, rather than the user.
- Users also need autonomy and empowerment, within protections.
- Are these risks to privacy due to laziness or a business model?
- Data collection is not usually essential for the product and data can be shared because there are businesses and markets for it.
- Data is the business model and the product is an adjunct.
- Businesses have made efficiencies through technology, so should be able to invest in services for those who can’t use the technology.
- Public interest harms, such as disinformation, are systemic rather than harmful to individuals.
The second consumer forum examined connectivity in the community:
- Politicians tend to think about access to telecommunications in relation to coverage, not affordability.
- Low income people are disproportionately affected by a lack of digital connectivity because they are more likely to interact with government services and be impacted more by not connecting.
- People in poverty pay a premium to connect, because they have limited data, no landline and are on pre-paid plans. We need digital first, not digital only.
Day 2: Open forums
The second day of the conference was open to all, including representatives of telecommunications providers and government officials.
Michelle Rowland, Minister for Communications
The Minister informed the conference that many reforms to protect consumers are on the table:
- The Australian Communications and Media Authority ACMA will make an enforceable industry standard on financial hardship by the start of 2024, to ensure people can stay connected.
- TCP code is being updated.
- There is consultation on establishing a retailer registration scheme. Infrastructure must always be in place. There will be a National messaging system by the end of next year.
Gerard Brody, Chair, Consumers Federation of Australia
Discussed Treasury’s proposal for an unfair trading prohibition for Australia:
- This was first recommended in 1997 and many times since, especially regarding consumer harm in the online world.
- Consumers should not be exploited by firms.
- It was traditionally considered enough to give people sufficient information so that they could be confident to make choices. This theory no longer suffices to protect consumers.
- Rather than being confident, consumers are always at a disadvantage.
- Information overload leads to confusion / complex markets with too many choices that make it hard to compare.
- Manipulative marketing is a common practice.
- Mechanisms are needed to ensure distrust is not embedded. If consumers are treated unfairly, people will not trust or engage with the market, especially if they expect firms will act badly.
- Prohibiting unfair trading is good social policy that can lead to an equitable society if transactions are conducted fairly, with a sense of cohesion and protection. This prohibition would outlaw manipulative practices such as countdown timers, which imply there is an urgency to complete a purchase; nugifying messages about low stock; and processes that make it difficult to cancel a service.
- An unfair trading prohibition could improve online safety as it could include lax data security practices. This is an undesirable market practice as it discourages consumers from engaging.
- There is currently confusion about whether smart products are a good or a service and what of online-only businesses? This could be resolved by the prohibition covering all businesses in trade or commerce.
Consumer protection and enforcement panel
This panel featured the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
ACMA reported that the Australian Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code is being updated by the end of next year. If industry does not improve, direct regulation will be necessary. ACMA registers voluntary codes and enforces them with telecommunications regarded as an essential service.
ACMA believes co-regulation can work well, as shown recently in reducing and blocking scam calls and SMS. Industries will need to invest in effective systems and procedures to deliver the obligors of any new code. Telcos have a strong role in scam detection and prevention.
The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman provides independent dispute resolution and is not a regulator, with the aim of driving improvement in the industry:
- Is the co-regulatory environment fit for purpose for an essential service?
- Does it meet community expectations?
Telcos are more distrusted now than social media platforms. Telcos have an interest in reducing scams because they decrease confidence in their networks. Telcos don’t bear the blame for losses through scams. It is expected in future that banks will take more of the loss. Identity Verification is a problem for online financial institutions. It is recognised that this creates access issues for consumers.
Barriers to scammers might also exclude consumers. ACCAN is still lobbying a low-income NBN product. It would prefer all telcos to have to register to be in the industry, to avoid weak links who have no interest in complying with voluntary codes.
ACCAN would also like to revisit universal service obligations and customer service guarantees. It’s time to modernise the long-term framework of telecommunications, including consumer expectations. Any guidelines need staff training and sufficient numbers of staff.
Angelene Falk, Australian Information and Privacy Commissioner
- Her role is to regulate data breaches and conduct audits.
- Small players are not covered by privacy rules.
- 47% of Australians have lost personal data through breaches in the past 12 months.
- Corporate Australia should collect minimal information, keep it secure and delete it.
- Entities need guidance and must be held to account.
- The major harm was the need to replace identity documents. Breached entities are not legally obliged to assist with this.
- 52% saw an increase in scams and spam.
- Online and social media have a greater impact on privacy.
- The community is worried about governments and businesses using AI and facial recognition.
- They want better protection and information about when they are being used.
- There is a strong feeling that publicly available information should not be used for unintended or unexpected uses.
- Generative AI uses data scraping.
Consumer data rights
- Consumers are entitled to have information transferred from one party to another.
- Privacy law is in the process of being reformed.
- The regulator requires additional tools and consumers need a broader array of rights.
- 93% want the right to ask businesses and governments to delete personal information.
- They want to be able to object to certain data being used, while still being able to use services.
- These rights exist in Europe.
Trusted organisations should have greater expectations to handle information safely – consumers should not need to be experts, but there should be a positive duty to consider the individual. Can a particular practice cause harm to an individual and how can this be mitigated?
- Privacy by design, like safety and access by design.
- Consumers need choice and control, with baseline protections and additional consent as required.
- 95% of business entities, as well as political parties, are currently not covered by Privacy law. At the time they were exempted, small businesses were not seen as risks introduced, but they also accumulated data.
Accessible telecoms service
- Nationwide service providing free information to people with disability and seniors about handsets and tablets.
- The website has been upgraded, with information about training opportunities current updates and accessible accessories.
- The service does not make recommendations, and will also not suggest anything that can cause harm.
- Can connect people with information, in formats they can use.
- Risk and resilience in the telecommunications industry.
- Improving access and affordability for people renting and living in social and affordable housing and experiencing homelessness.
- The digital divide: reliance on only online options and the assumptions that everyone has access to electricity, a device. Data and the internet are shared by many throughout the community, including people who are blind or vision impaired.
Further information about the work of ACCAN is available on their website at https://accan.org.au/.