Peak consumer advocacy group ACCAN says the woeful state of the telecommunications industry, with its sky-high customer service and complaint handling problems, could be greatly improved if regulators and government put consumer rights at the centre of communications policy.

Consumers First: Smart Regulation for Digital Australia, a report by UTS’s Communications Law Centre published today by ACCAN will drive an important debate about how to reform the sector. The report argues that a principle-based approach to consumer protection would hold service providers to account while giving them the flexibility to innovate.

“The current self-regulatory system, with its excessive rules, exemptions and exclusions, has failed,” said ACCAN Chief Executive Teresa Corbin. “Without a new approach to protection, consumers are going to be left with providers that still don’t care and won’t change. Smart regulation is about making the market work for consumers.”

Smart regulation would require the industry to adhere to high-level principles, such as treating customers fairly, respecting their privacy, providing accurate, clear information on product and services from the point of advertising to after sales service; and when problems occur, resolving disputes quickly and fairly.

The report’s co-author, Professor Michael Fraser AM, warns smart regulation will only work if the regulators have the right enforcement tools, processes and culture to hold companies to account.

“The ACMA needs a dedicated consumer protection arm that has access to business complaints data and auditing, and has the right enforcement tools and culture,” said Professor Fraser AM.

“Smart regulation is a holistic approach that would see the regulator maintain a continuous conversation with all stakeholders to ensure businesses are focusing on good consumer outcomes and clearly understand their responsibilities.”

The report puts forth a number of detailed recommendations for the ACMA, Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman and policy makers for a more broad adoption of principles-based rules and increasing the ACMA’s powers in a reformed regulatory system.

ACCAN says smart regulation is already playing a role in the Telecommunications Protection Code review that is currently underway, by exploring a principles-based, outcomes-focused approach.

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