​ACCC on keeping the data 'genie' in check for Australian consumers

ACCC chairman believes the new Consumer Data Right will enable consumers to benefit from the data businesses already hold.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been charged with oversight of the new Consumer Data Right (CDR), which will allow individuals to "own" their data by granting them open access to their banking, energy, phone, and internet transactions, as well as the right to control who can have it and who can use it.

Specifically, the ACCC will be responsible for rule-making, consumer education, and eventually the enforcement of the CDR.

Speaking at the Consumer Policy Research Centre's Consumer Data Conference in Melbourne on Monday, ACCC chairman Rod Sims detailed the watchdog's involvement, highlighting its interest is specifically in how big data is changing business-to-business competition, what that means for markets more broadly, and how that intersects with consumer protection.

"We live in a world in which the importance and value of data has increased significantly for businesses, allowing them to target their consumers in ways that were previously unheard of, and the volume of data that is routinely harvested has become almost incomprehensible," he said.

"The genie is out of the bottle, now we have to decide what to do with it."

Discussing the CDR, Sims said it is not intended to be the one-stop shop for regulation and control of consumer data, rather something giving consumers the right to safely access data held by businesses about them, and to direct how -- if at all -- such information is transferred.

"The CDR is also not an obligation to share data with third parties," he clarified. "Taking banking as an example, customers may still go on banking the same way without ever participating in Open Banking if they do not wish to.

"The way data is used within society is changing rapidly. Business is obtaining a benefit from this data but often consumers are not. Indeed, innovations that arguably benefit consumers such as targeted news or advertising are controlled almost exclusively by business interests rather than consumer decisions or choice," Sims continued.

"In this context, attempts to redress the balance and give more control to consumers, and to spur competition, are to be strongly welcomed."

The Australian government announced in May it would be investing AU$65 million over the forward estimates to "reform" the Australian data system, including implementing the CDR.

Following Sims' speech was the launch of the Consumer Policy Research Centre's Consumer Data and Digital Economy report, which highlighted Australians are feeling "powerless and uncomfortable" about their treatment from companies, technology platforms, and ecommerce when it comes to data.

The report [PDF] found that 95 percent of those surveyed wanted companies to give options to opt out of certain types of information collected about them, how it can be used, and/or what can be shared with others.

91 percent believe companies should only collect the information currently needed to provide the service they're delivering.

It was highlighted by the report that many Australian consumers are agreeing to lengthy, and somewhat confusing, terms and conditions even when they aren't completely understood, with 73 percent of those surveyed saying they had to agree to all terms in order to use a service.

"Consumers don't feel that they have a choice. This is why 73 percent of Australians want government to ensure companies give consumers options to opt out of providing data, how it can be used and shared with others. If companies won't behave responsibly with our data, we expect regulators to step in," Consumer Policy Research Centre CEO Lauren Solomon said.

"Australians feel uncomfortable sharing personal information about themselves, their friends' social platforms, location data, browsing history, as well as messages and phone contacts with third parties for secondary purposes. Yet that is the kind of information regularly being shared and used by companies, large and small."

The ACCC is also currently undertaking a digital platforms inquiry, which is expected to examine the effect that search engines, social media platforms, and other digital content aggregation platforms have on competition in media and advertising services markets.

"The inquiry will consider the impact of information asymmetry between digital platforms and consumers. This issue is important," Sims explained on Monday.

"While consumers don't pay a fee to access the services of digital platforms, they do provide platforms with access to their personal data, which the platforms in turn monetise through targeted advertising.

"The inquiry is considering how digital platforms collect and use the data of consumers, and whether consumers are adequately informed of those practices. We are also considering whether consumers are providing informed consent when they agree to conditions set by digital platforms, such as when they sign up to a digital platform or accept changes to privacy policies."

Sims said the inquiry is also examining the effect of big data on the lives of citizens.

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