The Australian telecommunications industry needs fewer rules but more principles to deal fairly with its customers according to a new report by the UTS Communications Law Centre (CLC).
Consumers First: Smart Regulation for Digital Australia has been written for the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) to drive 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.
ACCAN says the telecommunications industry is in a "woeful state" with sky-high customer service and complaint handling problems that could be greatly improved if regulators and government put consumer rights at the centre of communications policy.
The CLC report argues that basing regulation on a set of principles rather than rules helps consumers by making their welfare, rather than compliance, the focus of attention and helps business by focusing regulation on outcomes rather than detailed regulatory procedures. The number and complexity of prescriptive rules can be reduced.
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 products and services from the point of advertising to after sales service; and, when problems occur, resolving disputes quickly and fairly.
Professor Michael Fraser
The report's co-author, CLC Director Professor Michael Fraser, warned smart regulation will only work if the regulators have the right enforcement tools, processes and culture to hold companies to account.
"The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) needs a dedicated consumer protection arm that has access to business complaints data and auditing, and has the right enforcement tools and culture," Professor Fraser said.
"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 said 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.
Consumers First: Smart Regulation for Digital Australia is available for download from the ACCAN website.