News Articles and analysis

Australians want a ‘fair go’ with Big Data

It’s time to kick-start a national conversation on consumer data, writes the Consumer Policy Research Centre’s CEO Lauren Solomon.

Most of us in Australia don’t read privacy policies. And when we do, we often agree to terms with which we aren’t comfortable.

The Consumer Policy Research Centre has surveyed 1004 Australians about this issue. Of the respondents, 94 per cent had not read privacy policies or terms and conditions for all the products they signed up to in the previous 12 months.

An alarming rate, considering what you can sometimes find buried in these policies.

For those who had waded through at least one lengthy, complex privacy policy in the past year, two-thirds accepted the terms even though they felt uncomfortable, and 73 per cent did so because it was the only way they could access the product or service.

Caption: A visualisation of the lengthy and often unwieldy
Terms of Service used by major social media platforms at
The Visualising Knowledge 2018 conference held in Helsinki.

 

The survey, conducted by Roy Morgan Research for CPRC, found that Australian consumers desperately want genuine choice and control over how their data is collected and used.

 

‘Take it or leave it’ policies

In the digital economy, it’s currently a case of ‘take it or leave it, agree to our terms or get nothing’.

Yet, in accepting the terms of these policies, consumers are presumed to have given companies consent to capture, transfer, on-sell or transform our consumer data for purposes well beyond what any of us could reasonably expect.

These policies also often change, making it difficult to know what we consented to in the first place.

All of which begs the question: If we feel we cannot say no—even with all these privacy policies and terms and conditions in place—does it mean that we, as consumers, have given genuine consent?

CPRC’s research suggests the answer is ‘no’.

Consumers have told us they feel they simply have no choice in the digital economy – a feeling best articulated by one research participant who said, “I just close my eyes and don’t think about it.”

Over 70 per cent of survey respondents were not comfortable with basic data (such as their purchase histories and location data) being shared, while more than 85 per cent were opposed to companies sharing more personal information (like their phone contacts and text message logs).

Yet this information is regularly captured and used for personalising ads, offers and sponsored content on digital platforms and mobile apps. And, despite their concerns, most consumers we surveyed said they continued to use these digital products and services.

 

Preserving the ‘fair go’

Resoundingly, Australians want the ‘fair go’ to be preserved when it comes to Big Data.

Of the survey respondents, 88 per cent thought it unacceptable to be charged a different price for the same product compared to another Australian based on browsing history or payment behaviour. And 87 per cent were uncomfortable with their data being used without their knowledge to assess eligibility for a product or service, such as a loan or insurance.

A further 67 per cent wanted protections to ensure that consumers are not excluded from essential products and services based on their profiles, while 73 per cent supported government intervention to ensure companies provide options for how data is collected, used and shared. In this last respect, Australia currently lags behind other nations in addressing the critical issues.

The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in the EU deliver consumers greater transparency and genuine choice about how their data is collected and used. As Dr Katharine Kemp from UNSW highlighted, EU consumers will gain stronger safeguards, whereby consent must be:

  • Explicit – requires action to be taken to release data, and privacy is the default
  • Unbundled – consumers choose which kinds of data they allow to be collected and shared
  • Revocable – consent can be withdrawn at any point.

 

Come together for responsible innovation

Certainly, data collection, analysis and sharing leads to innovation, increased efficiency and consumer benefits. But we need to ensure data is treated responsibly.

This means putting consumers, not companies, in the driver’s seat when it comes to controlling the flow of personal information. And it requires striking the right balance between encouraging innovation, protecting privacy and enabling choice.

At CPRC, we believe it’s critical for Australia’s policy and community sectors to explore the benefits and challenges emerging around data collection, sharing and use.

We need to come together now to develop a better understanding of these issues, and of the implications for growing inequality and potentially unfair and discriminatory practices towards vulnerable consumers.

 


Interested in learning more? Join the #DataDialogue18 with leading researchers, regulators, advocates and businesses at our query:data national consumer data conference.

Hear from Mr Rod Sims, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chair and Mr Ed Santow, Australian Human Rights Commissioner. Explore the evolving policy and practice landscape across the fields of privacy, competition and consumer law, data ethics and open data.

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