ACMA puts telcos on notice to improve consumer protection

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The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has put Australia’s telco industry on notice that it must significantly improve its consumer protection framework.

A public review of the industry’s Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code is currently being undertaken by the industry peak body, Communications Alliance, with an expectation that it will be registered by late 2024.

ACMA releases position paper

To inform this process, the ACMA released a position paper, Consumer expectations for telecommunications safeguards, stating the regulator’s views on the current TCP Code and areas for improvement. ACMA Chair Nerida O’Loughlin said the paper sends a strong message to telcos.

“The ACMA has been concerned for some time that the current co-regulatory code is not delivering the level of consumer safeguards expected of an essential service,” Ms O’Loughlin said.

“Our position paper shows that telcos are falling short of what customers want in key areas such as selling practices, credit assessments, payment methods, disconnection processes, financial hardship assistance and the treatment of consumers in vulnerable circumstances, including those experiencing domestic and family violence.

“I welcome today’s announcement from the Minister for Communications that she will direct the ACMA to make a directly enforceable instrument which establishes substantial protections for telco consumers experiencing financial hardship.

Stronger consumer protection

“Given the current impact of cost-of-living pressures, we will move quickly to implement the new rules to give early and stronger protection for these consumers.

“Telco improvements on other matters raised in our position paper are also urgent and cannot wait until the proposed TCP Code review end date of late 2024.

“We expect the industry to demonstrate significant progress towards addressing these issues in the next six months. If the industry is unwilling to do so, we believe there is compelling evidence to support moving these protections into direct regulation.

“The ball is now squarely in the industry’s court to make the necessary improvements to better protect their customers,” Ms O’Loughlin said.

Under direct regulation, the ACMA will have a more powerful range of enforcement tools to ensure industry compliance, including through remedial directions, enforceable undertakings and financial penalties set by the Federal Court.

The ACMA position paper has been informed by regulatory monitoring, compliance and research activities, understanding of existing consumer safeguards, government and external research findings, and discussions with consumer advocates.

Protecting vulnerable telco customers

Protecting vulnerable telco customers, including those experiencing financial hardship or domestic or family violence, is among the ACMA compliance priorities for 2023-24.

Minimising gambling harm, combating SMS scams, tackling the online supply of dodgy devices and enforcing spam unsubscribe rules have been identified as some of the key compliance priorities for the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) in 2023–24.

ACMA Chair Nerida O’Loughlin said the ACMA would prioritise addressing scams due to their significant detrimental impact on people’s financial and social well-being.

“These scams are run by sophisticated international criminal networks. Over the next 12 months, the ACMA will work with government and industry to further reduce the risk of harm caused by scams by targeting them at their source before they hit people’s phones,” she said.

Protecting vulnerable telco customers, including those experiencing financial hardship or domestic or family violence, is also among the compliance priorities set by the ACMA for 2023–24.

“With many Australian families facing cost of living pressures, it is particularly important for telcos to do more to support their most vulnerable customers.

“Telecommunications is clearly an essential service, with Australians relying on connectivity to access work, education, health, government services and more. Without reliable phone and internet it is incredibly challenging for people to fully participate in today’s society,” Ms O’Loughlin said.

Compliance priorities

The full list of 2023–24 ACMA compliance priorities is:

  • Protecting telco customers experiencing financial hardship, particularly monitoring industry direct debit and responsible selling practices.
  • Supporting telco customers experiencing domestic and family violence and taking action against telcos that don’t follow industry rules.
  • Tackling the online supply of dodgy devices, focusing on supplier compliance with equipment rules, and working with online platforms to proactively remove ads for non-compliant devices.
  • Ensuring 5G mmWave EME compliance by extending our measurement program to mmWave technologies and EME in buildings.
  • Maintaining Low Power Open Narrowcasting (LPON) licensing integrity through compliance audits.
  • Minimising gambling harm by taking action against illegal offshore wagering providers targeting Australians, with a particular focus on the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
  • Enforcing e-marketing unsubscribe rules by focusing on businesses that don’t action opt-out requests, concentrating on areas that may cause significant harm like gambling, alcohol and ‘buy now, pay later’ products and services.
  • Combatting SMS scams to prevent them from reaching Australians by enforcing existing rules and exploring new ways to stop scam messages that impersonate legitimate brands.

The ACMA’s compliance priorities were informed by submissions made through a public consultation process. More details on the 2023–24 compliance priorities are available on the ACMA website.

The ACMA has also released its Outcomes: compliance priorities 2022–23 report, which sets out the ACMA’s actions and outcomes against its priorities for last year.

Related article: ACMA reveals top five phone scams and how to avoid them

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