22 May 2013

Silent Numbers

The Australian Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications References Committee has released its underwhelming report [PDF] regarding the inquiry into The feasibility of a prohibition on charging fees for an unlisted number service.

The Coalition majority on the Committee has two recommendations, essentially disregarding submissions from other than Telstra -
1 that the Telecommunications Act 1997 not be amended to prohibit the charging of a fee for an unlisted (silent) number on a public number directory. 
2 that the Australian Communications & Media Authority produce relevant material for telecommunications users that explains where their personal information is published and how it may be made private.
The Coalition senators comment that -
As the Australian Law Reform Commission stated in its report, For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law and Practice, privacy is a recognised human right and generally should take precedence over a range of other countervailing interests, such as cost and convenience. The ALRC also recognised however that privacy rights will clash with a range of other individual rights and collective interests.
The committee acknowledges the concerns raised by submitters that the charging of a fee for an unlisted number in the national public number directory may interfere with elements of their right to privacy. Furthermore, the committee appreciates that in addition to privacy being an individual right, people who have experienced domestic violence or who would be placed in a vulnerable position should their personal information become public are compelled to maintain their privacy. For these people even a modest charge to have an unlisted number could prove a barrier to their protection.
The committee also agrees with comments made by Telstra that for now there remains public interest in maintaining a nationally available public telephone directory to assist people maintaining communication. The White Pages has been published for a considerable period of time and is relied upon by many people for its information. Indeed the committee particularly notes the statistics provided by the Australian Communications & Media Authority that 88% of all Australians have used; either the electronic or hardcopy White Pages or Directory Assistance services in the past 12 months. The inclusion of the production of a public telephone directory in Telstra's Carrier License Conditions is indicative of its importance to the Australian public.
The committee is pleased that Telstra has agreed to formally implement a policy to waive the Silent Line fee for telecommunication users who face a demonstrated security threat. The empowerment of customer service agents to respond to an applicant's individual circumstances and apply the fee exemption where appropriate is also welcomed. The committee considers that these measures will help to ensure the privacy of those people who would be placed at risk if their personal information were to become public. The victims of domestic violence have a right to ensure their personal safety and this should not come at a cost to them. The committee acknowledges that through Telstra's announcement, the ability of victims to maintain their privacy free of charge is now available.
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.
The dissenting senators (Cameron, Bilyk and Ludlam) were more positive. They comment -
The genesis for this References inquiry was recommendation no. 72-17 of report no. 108 of the Australian Law Reform Commission on Australian privacy law and practice which recommended that: The Telecommunications Act 1997 should be amended to prohibit the charging of a fee for an unlisted (silent) number.
The Coalition Senators’ report found that the ALRC’s recommendation has widespread support from consumer and privacy advocacy groups as well as sections of the telecommunications industry. The Coalition Senators have chosen to ignore the evidence received and seek to protect the corporate interest of Telstra.
Of the 19 submissions [including one by myself], the only submission that advocated the continuation of unlisted (silent) line fees was made by Telstra. Their submission was focused on ensuring the continued profitability of Telstra, through the charging of unlisted (silent) line fees, and of Sensis, the subsidiary that is responsible for the production of the White Pages directory.
This was opposed by groups like the St Vincent de Paul Society, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, the Privacy Commissioner and Legal Centres from around Australia - all built on the work of the Australian Law Reform Commission. Their submissions were focused on concerns about privacy and safety. They also focused on ensuring that all telecommunications users are able to enjoy those two rights, regardless of their ability to pay, or meet complex eligibility requirements.
The claim by Coalition Senators that the prohibition of charging a fee for an unlisted number would undermine the purpose and usefulness of the national telephone directory does not withstand even basic scrutiny.
As it stands, 16% of fixed line users are currently paying a monthly fee to have their details removed from telephone directories. This has not had a deleterious effect on the use of telecommunications directories, which is still used by 88% of Australians in the past year.
Dissenting Senators have taken the view that citizens' right to privacy and personal safety are more important than a theoretical decrease in the usefulness of Telstra’s White Pages directory.