Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Environment and Communications References Committee; Report
I present the report of the Environment and Communications References Committee on the feasibility of a prohibition on charging fees for an unlisted number service, together with the submissions.
Ordered that the report be printed.
That the Senate take note of the report.
In doing so, I highlight that unlisted numbers are certainly an important privacy protection in certain circumstances. There is very definitely, however, also a public benefit to having directories of listed numbers. In this regard, we find ourselves in the circumstance where the government and governments over many years have maintained a duality of circumstances. There is an obligation that public directories of listed landline, fixed line, numbers be printed and provided but equally that there be provision for the capacity for people to have private numbers within that arrangement.
The committee investigated the circumstances under which unlisted numbers may be necessary and the merit of charging a fee for this privacy protection, which has long been the common practice and the standing practice by Telstra, which has the obligations placed upon it.
The Telecommunications Act provides for numbers to be unlisted; however, it is silent on whether a fee can be charged for an unlisted number.
Telstra's carrier licence requires it to provide and maintain an Integrated Public Number Database. This database is vital in ensuring the operation of emergency call services, emergency warnings and a range of government and public functions.
Telstra is also required under its licence conditions to produce a directory of public numbers—namely, of course, the White Pages. It is important to recognise that this does place an administrative cost on Telstra to fulfil this obligation. In particular, there are costs associated then with managing alterations to that directory, with such alterations or variations increasing the costs of an otherwise fairly automated process. To ensure privacy, consumers have an option, as they have long had, to pay a modest fee to have their number unlisted.
Many witnesses, during this inquiry, cited this fee as an impediment to privacy. Concerns were particularly strong in the case of domestic violence victims, where there is a clear need for privacy protections and where the victim may not have the means to afford the fee.
The Australian Privacy Foundation, for example, submitted that a prohibition of the fee was desirable, while the Consumer Credit Legal Centre (NSW) stated that 'privacy is a basic right and consumers should be able to control the use or disclosure of their personal information with as little effort or inconvenience as possible'.
I am pleased that Telstra has announced that from May 2013 it will introduce a program which formalises what has been a previous practice of waiving the fee for a silent line for customers whose personal safety is at risk.
Telstra further assured the committee that for customers who do not meet the formal eligibility criteria established for this waiver, Telstra customer service agents will be empowered to apply the fee exemption where appropriate. This is a positive change from Telstra. It is formalising some activities which were previously undertaken but will hopefully provide far greater confidence—that the fee will indeed be waived—to those in the community who may be concerned about this fee application in cases of domestic violence or other instances where it is clearly warranted.
In an environment where public directories of phone numbers are still of some use—as time evolves and a shift from the traditional landline phone continues, that will not, perhaps, always be the case—the committee believes that Telstra's actions represent an appropriate response to the need to provide for privacy whilst maintaining a robust public directory. Obviously, the more people opt out of the public directory, the less worthwhile it becomes.
In future, as consumers increasingly rely solely on mobile phones or on voice-over-internet-protocol activities or the like, there may be a change to this situation. Given that mobile phones are automatically unlisted numbers, the public benefit of the public directory may be reduced. For now, however, the committee recommends the Telecommunications Act 1997 not be amended to prohibit the charging of a fee for an unlisted number. We think there is some merit in this small disincentive to general consumers being maintained to discourage them from unnecessarily requesting unlisted numbers, especially when there is now a provision to ensure that those who have an immediate and genuine need do get those unlisted numbers without application of a fee. For others, it is a very minor fee. As the committee said in the report:
The committee agrees with comments made by Telstra that if it is compelled by its Carrier License Conditions to produce a national telephone directory, that it would be inconsistent for it to then also be compelled to support a government policy that could encourage users to remove themselves from that directory. Eventually this position would undermine the purpose and usefulness of the directory. The committee therefore considers that a nominal charge which has the effect of ensuring that most people do not unlist their number is beneficial to the directory and ultimately to the community.
This is an issue which has been considered in the past and may well come up again. In future, I would suggest to the committee, future ministers or others looking at this issue that it may be more appropriate, as the years go by, to be reviewing the actual need for and merits of imposing the obligation of maintaining a public directory, rather than purely looking at this issue of whether or not a nominal fee is applied to those who seek unlisted numbers.
The committee also recommended that, to ensure consumers are fully aware of how their personal information is used, the Australian Communications and Media Authority produce relevant material for telecommunications users that explains where their personal information is published and how it may be made private.
As always, I thank the committee secretariat for their valuable work in the preparation of the report and the small number of interested parties in the community who made submissions and participated in the inquiry. I commend the report to the Senate.
Question agreed to.