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Wednesday, 12 March 2008 10:41

Conroy to give telecom consumers more power UPDATED

Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has called for greater consumer involvement in both the development of telecommunications policy and in industry self-regulation, and has accused the industry of tardiness in developing consumer protection codes.
Addressing the Australian Telecommunications Users Group (Atug) annual conference, Conroy said: "If industry self regulation is to remain a viable form of regulation for telcos it is incumbent on the industry to ensure that the interests of consumers continue to be adequately represented and protected. Unfortunately there are signs that the interests of consumer are falling behind in the current environment of increasing competition and product complexity."

Conroy said that, "to ensure that self regulation continues to adapt to emerging technology and services consumers need to be given a strong voice in the development of codes and other protections and new arrangement need to be made quickly as issues emerge and these must be reviewed regularly...In particular I want to look at ways to give consumers a more powerful voice in the development of telco policy and in particular in industry codes. The first step in this process will be for me to hear views directly and I have asked my department to arrange a forum for industry stakeholders. My preference is for this to happen sooner rather than later."

Conroy also directed criticism at The Communications Alliance, the body responsible for developing industry codes and practices, but without mentioning it by name. Noting that codes were taking up to 18 months to develop and implement he said: "From my perspective, industry does not appear to be in a hurry to ensure that protections are in place. In an industry as dynamic as the telecommunications sector it is disappointing that codes take so long to develop and it is frustrating for consumers. Industry members need to be much more responsive to the interests of consumer and respectful of their needs." CONTINUED

Conroy said he was "strongly commited to remaining actively engaged with all stakeholders" because "I firmly believe this is the best way to develop new policy...A sustainable telecommunications industry ultimately relies on maintaining a healthy relationship with consumers. According to a recent OECD paper on protecting and empowering consumers, informed consumers are a necessary part of the mix. They are able to stimulate innovation and competition, improving prices and service quality."

Consumers are presently represented in Communications Alliance by the Consumer Council, According to its web site, "The ACIF [former name of Comms Alliance] Consumer Council was an initiative to ensure adequate and appropriate broad consumer input into ACIF processes and activities, particularly, in code development. The Council works in parallel with, and is complementary to, the existing ACIF structure.

"The Council comprises up to ten members from a wide range of consumer representative and public interest representative organisations, thereby providing diverse coverage of key stakeholder sectors. The roles and responsibilities of the Council are based upon providing broadly-based consumer input to ACIF, including input to the ACIF Strategic Plan and input to the ACIF Works Program."

It lists members, as of April 2007 as being: Teresa Corbin (Consumers Telecommunications Network); Dr Christopher Newell (ACIF Disability Council); Nan Bosler (Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association); Su Robertson (Communications Law Centre); Myra Pincott (Country Womens' Association of Australia); Marion Lau (Ethnic Communities' Council of Victoria); Cheryl Langdon-Or (Internet Society of Australia); Gordon Frend (Australian Telecommunications Users Group); Ian Butterworth
(Telecommunications Consumer Group SA).

Conspicuous by its absence is the Australian Consumers Association. There is a very specific reason for this. CONTINUED

Prior to the formation of the council, consumer representatives participated directly in the ACIF working groups and reference panels responsible for developing codes and standards.

But late 2001 all the major consumer groups involved in ACIF announced their intention "to disengage forthwith from participation in ACIF processes, indefinitely" on the grounds that the system was not delivering results consumers needed. The then head of the Consumers Telecommunications Network, Helen Campbell, said the move was the result of "years of frustration and dissatisfaction with the operations of ACIF."

The dispute was eventually resolved with the formation of the Consumer Council, in addition to the direct involvement of consumer representatives in code development. The Consumers Association refused to be part of this scheme.

Its then communications policy advisor, Charles Britton, was reported saying that, in his view ACIF processes made little difference to consumer outcomes and the Consumers Association was unable to affect ACIF processes. His dismissed formation f the council a merely adding another layer to an already flawed process.

** FOOTNOTE: This article originally stated that the Consumer Council had replaced the direct involvement of consumer representatives in code development. The author acknowledges that this is not the case and apologies for this error. Below is a letter to the editor from Comms Alliance CEO Anne Hurley received in response to the original report.

"There is extensive consumer involvement in all consumer codes developed by Communications Alliance. Consumers have always been represented on our working committees developing consumer codes. On the two most recent significant projects, development of the Consumer Contracts Code and the Telecommunications Protection Code, there was an equal number of members representing industry and consumers. In addition, there is consumer representation on all Communications Alliance reference panels.

"Communications Alliance also maintains a standing Consumer Council with representation from a broad range of organisations to provide consumer input into our processes and activities. Over the past year we have bolstered this input by joining forces with ACMA to launch our Consumer Dialogue, an annual event focusing on how new and emerging technologies might benefit consumers.

"Communications Alliance has consistently taken a serious view of its commitment to the protection of consumer interests and welcomes Minister Conroy’s efforts to explore further opportunities for ensuring consumers have a powerful voice in the development of communications policy."

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