Senate debates

Monday, 25 November 2019

Bills

Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019; Second Reading

11:06 am

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution this morning on the bill being advanced by Senator Griff, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019. As outlined in the explanatory memorandum, the primary purpose of the bill is to provide consumers with more control over the receiving of unsolicited communications—those calls that you receive not from somebody you know but from somebody you absolutely don't know who's asking you to do something, to give something, to say something or to enact something. They have no former relationship with you and you often have to ask, 'How on earth did they get my number and why are they calling me when I'm trying to get the kids out of the bath?' Those are the sorts of questions Australians constantly ask, and they get very annoyed when they have no recourse. This bill proposes to achieve more control over the reception of those unsolicited communications by amending exemptions which provided entities such as political parties and charities with a degree of greater flexibility on unsolicited communications. No doubt the situation that allowed that was well intentioned at the time, but as technology changes and as sometimes business practices change we need to adjust the law to accommodate the realities that become apparent before our very eyes—or maybe in this case our ears.

The bill before the Senate proposes to make several changes. The first is to amend the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 to enable consumers who register on the Do Not Call Register to opt out of receiving phone calls from charities. The second is to amend the Spam Act 2003 to require political parties to provide an unsubscribe function for all unsolicited electronic communications containing political content. The third is to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to require that voice calls communicating an electoral matter to a person must identify the use of any actors at the beginning of the call. The fourth is to amend the Telecommunications Act 1997 to make other consequential amendments.

It is important to state at the outset that Labor acknowledges Senator Griff has brought these proposals forward in good faith and seeks to address issues of legitimate concern to the community. Leading into the 2019 election, we saw Clive Palmer and the United Australia Party unleash on millions of voters a barrage of unsolicited text messages, many of which contained false and misleading claims and statements. Despite being on the Do Not Call Register and almost all wanting to immediately cease receiving the spam messages, Australians were swamped by texts from the UAP, aptly described by many as unsolicited election trash. You can understand the frustration. I'm sure many of my colleagues who were handing out in the course of the election were engaged by very aggrieved Australians letting us know how unhappy they were at having been so attacked by the detritus that came out of the UAP at the cost of Clive Palmer. This operation contained geographically targeted slogans and campaign material, with the ABC reporting that, as of January 2019, more than 5.6 million Australian phones had received text messages from Clive Palmer and the UAP. This was a scale of attack on Australians' right to privacy of a kind we have never seen. It was a tsunami of unwanted and illegitimate claims that were foisted on good Australians who want to take their civic duty seriously and engage in the voting process with facts and information that help them make choices that will impact their lives and the lives of their families and of people they love.

Furthermore, the scale and frequency of the operation led to widespread community concern which prompted over 3,000 complaints to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the regulator overseeing spam and unsolicited communications, from consumers. However, the Australian Communications and Media Authority was unable to act as the messages are not within its remit. They do not offer goods or services; just false information and an imposition. Clive Palmer plain refused to stop sending the text messages, despite wide public anger from the almost one-third of voting Australians who were bombarded by the messages. Whilst the conduct of Mr Palmer goes to issues much broader than this bill, it's well-established that Clive Palmer was willing to spend whatever was necessary, in his mind, to undermine Labor. When his advertising campaign began in 2018, the advertisements attacked both the Liberal Party and the ALP, but, following a preference deal with the coalition in January 2019, Clive Palmer agreed that in the final period of the election campaign he would switch his attack, and his considerable millions, to be exclusively against the Labor Party.

Being an individual of high wealth, his ability to leverage legislative exemptions in relation to electronic messaging and then use this to wage a misinformation campaign for the primary purposes of protecting his own financial interests is obviously an issue of significant concern, particularly when you think that the scale of the investment Mr Palmer made in electing this government is on the public record as being in the vicinity of $60 million. When I went to school and I learned about democracy, I was appalled that ordinary people used to be unable to vote, that only people with money got to vote and that it took a lot of reform to reach the state where it was one vote, one value. That basic tenet was absolutely overturned by the action of Mr Palmer in this nation. It was a historic moment of gross manipulation of information in the public place, where one man's wealth was able to buy a swathe of votes. One vote, one value; each of us as equal Australians—that is what is at risk if the behaviour of Mr Palmer is allowed to continue.

He's not the only one who has sought to use financial influence in this place. On 25 September 2019, ACMA also issued a formal warning to the South Australian Division of the Liberal Party for making robocalls during prohibited calling times in the early hours of the morning, well before what is permitted by the telemarketing standard. I've said before and I say again: Australians value their privacy. Like people all over the world, we're not particularly thrilled to be woken up by political calls in the early hours of the morning.

The constant flow of illegal calls from overseas scammers is also ever present in the lives of Australians, particularly older Australians, who spend a great proportion of their time at home. I very clearly recall a conversation with one of my friends, who was talking about her concern for her mum. Recently widowed, her mum, despite having considerable support from the family, was targeted by phone calls, frequently around dinnertime, and she would sit on the phone talking with people from overseas. She ended up buying all sorts of things that she didn't need or want. In her grief, in her loneliness and in her kindness in talking to other people, she was being scammed of significant amounts of money and being exploited. We don't want that to continue. I know that even my government office is swamped by calls from scammers, often purporting to be from the NBN or the ATO. They come in nearly every single day, and this is a common experience for Australians these days.

Clearly the accumulation of these different issues—combined with the intensity of the election campaign as waged, particularly, by Mr Palmer—has just drained the goodwill of ordinary Australians. They've had enough. They've had a gutful, as we might say. In a world where concerns about privacy and the sharing of personal information receive almost daily attention, supercharged by the rapid proliferation of digital platforms and social media, it's important that the parliament remain responsive to such developments and concerns. We are worried about scandals such as that of Cambridge Analytica, where ultrasmart algorithms are slowly classifying humans into their most basic political and commercial wants and needs and stripping them of their wider humanity, all for the purpose of getting a vote or a sale.

For those who don't understand how data is scraped, it's just information about you. Every time you get an app on your phone or Google Maps is following you around or Siri's listening in, there's information being gathered about you. Information is being gathered about us all. We're complex and interesting human beings, but people have figured out that all this data we're generating is money in their bank. They're getting the data. They might call it pretty dirty, but they scrape it, they clean it up, they provide some analysis on it and they sell it on. I would be shocked if there were a person in this room who is not impacted in that way by how data is used. When data can pinpoint you and really ramp up the things that you're concerned about in an inflammatory way—especially when they purport to tell you the truth but it's actually lies told by an actor—we've got a big problem. It's got to stop. Things need to change.

The Do Not Call Register is one tool relied on by many Australians to reduce the number of unsolicited communications they receive. This register is, in effect, a secure database where individuals can register their Australian telephone number, and, once registered, a number will stay on the register indefinitely. Organisations such as telemarketers then need to wash their calling lists against the register to ensure that the numbers that are on the register are not contacted by them. It's important to note, however, that, when the Do Not Call Register Act was established in 2006, it contained exemptions—important exemptions, probably for very good reason at the time—for charities, for religious organisations, for educational institutions and for political parties. These types of callers were permitted to bypass the register, but they were contained by a requirement to comply with the Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard 2017, which stipulates that a telemarketer or researcher can call you only within a particular limited time; stipulates the information that they have to give you at the start of the call and the information that they have to give you if you request it; and stipulates that they must terminate the call immediately if you ask.

Charities in Australia continue to provide valuable services in the community and rely on having various options to conduct fundraising activities. Just in the last couple of weeks, we've seen—with the crisis of the bushfires across this country but particularly up and down the east coast—that there has been a great call on Australians to provide support for our fellow Australians, and charities have had a vital role to play in that. There's a place for this, but there needs to be further containment. Nearly half of the major charities are members of Fundraising Institute Australia. That institute has its own code of conduct and claims to set the bar higher than the industry standard. It is important to understand what the impacts of any proposal for changes on charities would be and how this would impact on their ability to look after the vital needs in our community and do what they do: raise funds that can be distributed to places where there is great need, often at very short notice.

Political parties and candidates also provide voters with information that they can use to inform their voting behaviour. Electronic communication is one of those key channels, and it's certainly fair to say that this is, at times, intrusive and disruptive. It reflects in some way the overall rough and tumble of democracy itself. But it's very difficult to think about people making informed choices without some contact from the parties that are seeking their support.

Senator Griff's bill deserves respect and due consideration, and for these reasons Labor considers it would be most appropriate for the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to consider and report on this bill. I believe that Senator Kitching has indicated that we will be circulating a second reading amendment to this effect. On 29 July 2019 the Minister for Finance asked the committee to inquire into and report on all aspects of the conduct of the 2019 federal election. The inquiry has commenced and has invited submissions, with the first public hearings scheduled for 6 December 2019. We believe it would be wise to wait for the inquiry to examine and report on this issue before we move on a legislative prescription.

I also want to touch on the broader issue of scam calls, which are increasingly becoming a plague to members of the public and business. You could say that scam calls are the largest source of frustration and financial harm when it comes to unsolicited calls. This year in April the ACCC revealed that the total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other agencies exceeded $489 million—that is, $489 million was scammed from Australians in 2019. That was bad; it was so bad that year. We can see the scale of the increase in scams operating. In 2017 the cost was $149 million. So, reported losses to scamming went up from $149 million to $489 million. What about the unreported ones where people were too embarrassed or ashamed to report what happened to them? It's truly a dramatic rise in the exploitation of Australian people via the use of a telecommunications device. We know that scam artists are getting craftier; we know they're getting more effective in their thievery. There were 177,000 scams reported to Scamwatch in 2018, up from over 91,000 in 2014. It's really no wonder, then, that seven in 10 Australians do not believe enough is being done to protect them. Australia does need a clamping-down on these scammers and protection for the lonely and the vulnerable and remote and unlucky Australians who fall victim to scamming.

The growth in the number of scams and the unsolicited telephone calls which often precede them is an assault on the integrity of our phone system. Furthermore, this illegal practice is an incursion on the privacy of every Australian. Every Australian has the right, and should continue to have the right, to safety and quiet enjoyment in their own homes. This has been recognised around the world, and different jurisdictions are trying their own ideas. Does this government have a plan? No. Just like in so many areas of public policy, there is no plan. The US is implementing technical standards to verifying caller ID integrity to improve safeguards against illegal number spoofing. In the UK, British Telecom introduced Call Protect, a free opt-in service which combines network intelligence and user feedback to prevent calls from numbers on scam blacklists from reaching households. This service was reported to reduce the volume of nuisance calls by 65 per cent. I think Australians would be pretty happy with that level of reduction in assaults on them and their household. Over two million UK households signed up in the first three months of that program in the UK. The UK's also trialled handset technology in the homes of some of the most vulnerable people across the UK, such as dementia sufferers, who have been identified by doctors as being at particular risk from nuisance callers. In New Zealand, the telecommunications industry has established a scam prevention code.

Fiona Cameron, the chair of the scam technology project of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, has described trying to fight the scourge as 'a bit like playing whack-a-mole'. Australians were cheated out of half a billion dollars last year alone, and we need a strong and comprehensive response to manage these scam artists. There are clearly some options available to this not-interested government. There's work being done out there. There are effective policies being implemented in other jurisdictions, and they have some considerable advantages. Perhaps they have some difficulties, too. That's why we need to have a further inquiry into this matter.

What perplexes many Australians is they see the government really acting forcefully to rush through poorly drafted encryption legislation, yet, when we've got nearly half a billion dollars being robbed from citizens every year and our elderly, vulnerable people being harassed in their homes nearly every day, that same Liberal-National party government are not acting with any urgency. Despite the fact they've been in power for over six years now, the Liberals still have no plan. That's despite repeated warnings of danger.

Labor would like to see the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters examine the proposals contained in Senator Griff's bill, and Labor will be circulating, as I said, a second reading amendment to that effect. Our response needs to be comprehensive, measured and robust enough to remove scam artists from the system, root and branch. (Time expired)

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