A government proposal to reduce privacy regulations on telecom carriers has met with resistance from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN).
As part of a package of deregulatory measures earmarked for the government's second 'repeal day' slated for September or October, the Department of Communications has proposed removing privacy rules found in Part 13 of the Telecommunications Act.
The government had reasoned that the new Privacy Act, covering all industries, has rendered the telco-specific privacy rules in the Telecommunications Act unnecessary.
"Repealing Part 13 would remove compliance and record-keeping obligations on industry, while the Privacy Act would maintain strong consumer protections," the department said.
However, ACCAN said in its submission to the proposal that the Privacy Act has a smaller scope than Part 13 and telecom consumers would be less protected if Part 13 was simply repealed. ACCAN said it would support a repeal only after key provisions of Part 13 are added to the Privacy Act.
"There may be overlaps and duplication of regulation where rationalisation would benefit all Stakeholders," ACCAN wrote. "However, the review is complex, and must include an evaluation of the effectiveness of the new Act in order to result in no overall diminution of privacy protections for the Australian community.
"Abolishing Part 13 of the Telecommunications Act and incorporating an industry-specific section in the Privacy Act would ensure other important differences between the two Acts are not lost, while at the same time producing one coherent reference point for telecommunication service providers."
ACCAN gave several examples of areas where the Privacy Act provides weaker protections for telecom customers than the Part 13 rules.
"The Privacy Act covers personal information, it does not cover statistical data or metadata," ACCAN wrote. "There is evidence that metadata can be highly intrusive, and reveal a significant amount of information about a person's identity."
Also, the Privacy Act applies to entities but not to employees, and only indirectly to contractors, ACCAN said. "By contrast, Part 13 applies directly to all organisations and individuals handling telecommunications information, so [it] has a broader scope."
And while Part 13 applies to all telecom providers, the Privacy Act would not cover telcos with less than $3 million in turnover, it said.
ACCAN disagrees with Optus objections
ACCAN supported a proposal to remove a requirement under Part 17 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 for telcos delivering standard (non-cellular) telephone services to allow customers to select different providers for long distance and international calls, and calls from fixed services to mobile phones.
The Department of Communications had proposed limiting this requirement to services delivered over the legacy copper network.
Optus had objected to the proposal, saying in its submission that pre-selection will remain important as long as Telstra is the only telco with national infrastructure to deliver fixed telephone services.
However, ACCAN said the pre-selection rules is no longer important for consumers.
"This requirement assisted in the introduction of competition in telecommunications and according to ACMA reports, is now rarely used by consumers," ACCAN said.
"We understand that this represents substantial future savings to industry as it avoids having to configure pre-selection to an NBN environment."
While pre-selection is not appropriate in an NBN world, a small percentage of business customers still rely on it and so it should remain for switched telephone services delivered by copper, ACCAN noted.
ACCAN also disagreed with Optus's objections to a proposal that would end a requirement on Telstra to report annually on its obligation to deliver services to regional areas.
"The consumer impact of removing the local presence plan requirement is low. However, it is vitally important for regional, rural and remote Australia that the requirement for Telstra to have a local presence be maintained," ACCAN said.
Farmers fight revamped Customer Service Guarantee
The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) said in its submission that the government has overstated the level of competition in rural areas in making a proposal to overhaul the Customer Service Guarantee, a mechanism that sets maximum timeframes carriers must meet when connecting telephone services, repairing faults and keeping appointments with customers.
The Department of Communications said in its proposal that the current CSG is burdensome to telcos. Instead, it proposed a "more market-based instrument".
"The claims made regarding the level of competition in rural areas do not seem to reflect the reality of farmers' experiences, where the market in many areas is limited to a single provider," said the NFF.
"It is therefore essential that the telecommunications market be supported with measures to ensure competition, simply so that customers in rural and remote Australia can be ensured of access to telecommunications services. Within this context, the CSG is an important mechanism for ensuring telecommunications services are repaired and delivered within reasonable timeframes."
Citing similar competition concerns, the NFF also appeared hesitant for the government to repeal retail price controls (RPCs) applying to Telstra.
The NFF said it understands that removal of RPCs in international markets has not led to increased prices in rural areas.
"However, with the lack of competition currently in the market, the NFF is still keen to ensure that farmers and rural businesses are not overcharged for their telecommunication services," it wrote.
"Therefore, if RPCs were to be removed, the NFF would be keen to ensure that there is still an ability for government to intervene -- for example, the relevant Federal Minister retaining power to rule a determination -- if it was found that rural and remote customers were experiencing unreasonable price increases."
The full text of the government proposals and stakeholder responses are available to read on the Department of Communications website.