.

  • Written by Katharine Kemp, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UNSW, and Co-Leader, 'Data as a Source of Market Power' Research Stream of The Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation, UNSW
Your online activity can be turned into an intimate portrait of your life - and used for profit. Shutterstock.com

Australia’s consumer watchdog has recommended major changes to our consumer protection and privacy laws. If these reforms are adopted, consumers will have much more say about how we deal with Google, Facebook, and other businesses.

The proposals include a right to request erasure of our information; choices about whether we are tracked online and offline; potential penalties of A$10 million or more for companies that misuse our information or impose unfair privacy terms; and default settings that favour privacy.


Read more: Consumer watchdog calls for new measures to combat Facebook and Google's digital dominance


The report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says consumers have growing concerns about the often invisible ways companies track us and disclose our information to third parties. At the same time, many consumers find privacy policies almost impossible to understand and feel they have no choice but to accept.

My latest research paper details how companies that trade in our personal data have incentives to conceal their true practices, so they can use vast quantities of data about us for profit without pushback from consumers. This can preserve companies’ market power, cause harm to consumers, and make it harder for other companies to compete on improved privacy.

The vicious cycle of privacy abuse. Helen J. Robinson, Author provided

Privacy policies are broken

The ACCC report points out that privacy policies tend to be long, complex, hard to navigate, and often create obstacles to opting out of intrusive practices. Many of them are not informing consumers about what actually happens to their information or providing real choices.

Many consumers are unaware, for example, that Facebook can track their activity online when they are logged out, or even if they are not a Facebook user.


Read more: Shadow profiles - Facebook knows about you, even if you're not on Facebook


Some privacy policies are outright misleading. Last month, the US Federal Trade Commission settled with Facebook on a US$5 billion fine as a penalty for repeatedly misleading users about the fact that personal information could be accessed by third-party apps without the user’s consent, if a user’s Facebook “friend” gave consent.

If this fine sounds large, bear in mind that Facebook’s share price went up after the FTC approved the settlement.

The ACCC is now investigating privacy representations by Google and Facebook under the Australian Consumer Law, and has taken action against the medical appointment booking app Health Engine for allegedly misleading patients while it was selling their information to insurance brokers.

Nothing to hide…?

Consumers generally have very little idea about what information about them is actually collected online or disclosed to other companies, and how that can work to their disadvantage.

A recent report by the Consumer Policy Research Centre explained how companies most of us have never heard of – data aggregators, data brokers, data analysts, and so on – are trading in our personal information. These companies often collect thousands of data points on individuals from various companies we deal with, and use them to provide information about us to companies and political parties.

Data companies have sorted consumers into lists on the basis of sensitive details about their lifestyles, personal politics and even medical conditions, as revealed by reports by the ACCC and the US Federal Trade Commission. Say you’re a keen jogger, worried about your cholesterol, with broadly progressive political views and a particular interest in climate change – data companies know all this about you and much more besides.

So what, you might ask. If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to lose, right? Not so. The more our personal information is collected, stored and disclosed to new parties, the more our risk of harm increases.

Potential harms include fraud and identity theft (suffered by 1 in 10 Australians); being charged higher retail prices, insurance premiums or interest rates on the basis of our online behaviour; and having our information combined with information from other sources to reveal intimate details about our health, financial status, relationships, political views, and even sexual activity.


Read more: Why you might be paying more for your airfare than the person seated next to you


In written testimony to the US House of Representatives, legal scholar Frank Pasquale explained that data brokers have created lists of sexual assault victims, people with sexually transmitted diseases, Alzheimer’s, dementia, AIDS, sexual impotence or depression. There are also lists of “impulse buyers”, and lists of people who are known to be susceptible to particular types of advertising.

Major upgrades to Australian privacy laws

According to the ACCC, Australia’s privacy law is not protecting us from these harms, and falls well behind privacy protections consumers enjoy in comparable countries in the European Union, for example. This is bad for business too, because weak privacy protection undermines consumer trust.

Importantly, the ACCC’s proposed changes wouldn’t just apply to Google and Facebook, but to all companies governed by the Privacy Act, including retail and airline loyalty rewards schemes, media companies, and online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay.

Australia’s privacy legislation (and most privacy policies) only protect our “personal information”. The ACCC says the definition of “personal information” needs to be clarified to include technical data like our IP addresses and device identifiers, which can be far more accurate in identifying us than our names or contact details.


Read more: Explainer: what is surveillance capitalism and how does it shape our economy?


Whereas some companies currently keep our information for long periods, the ACCC says we should have a right to request erasure to limit the risks of harm, including from major data breaches and reidentification of anonymised data.

Companies should stop pre-ticking boxes in favour of intrusive practices such as location tracking and profiling. Default settings should favour privacy.

Currently, there is no law against “serious invasions of privacy” in Australia, and the Privacy Act gives individuals no direct right of action. According to the ACCC, this should change. It also supports plans to increase maximum corporate penalties under the Privacy Act from A$2.1 million to A$10 million (or 10% of turnover or three times the benefit, whichever is larger).

Increased deterrence from consumer protection laws

Our unfair contract terms law could be used to attack unfair terms imposed by privacy policies. The problem is, currently, this only means we can draw a line through unfair terms. The law should be amended to make unfair terms illegal and impose potential fines of A$10 million or more.

The ACCC also recommends Australia adopt a new law against “unfair trading practices”, similar to those used in other countries to tackle corporate wrongdoing including inadequate data security and exploitative terms of use.

So far, the government has acknowledged that reforms are needed but has not committed to making the recommended changes. The government’s 12-week consultation period on the recommendations ends on October 24, with submissions due by September 12.

Katharine Kemp receives funding from The Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation. She is a Member of the Advisory Board of the Future of Finance Initiative in India, the Centre for Law, Markets & Regulation and the Australian Privacy Foundation.

Authors: Katharine Kemp, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UNSW, and Co-Leader, 'Data as a Source of Market Power' Research Stream of The Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation, UNSW

Read more http://theconversation.com/heres-how-tech-giants-profit-from-invading-our-privacy-and-how-we-can-start-taking-it-back-120078

Better pay and more challenge: here's how to get our top students to become teachers

Relative to other careers, bright students who were surveyed didn't see teaching as coming with career challenges. www.shutterstock.comAustralia’s young high achievers are turning their backs o...

Peter Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute - avatar Peter Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute

Does anyone have a pad? TV is finally dismantling the period taboo

New attitudes show periods might finally be coming of age. July Prokopiv/ShutterstockLast week, menstrual pad brand Libra launched their Blood Normal commercial in Australia, running it during prime ...

Lara Owen, PhD Candidate, Monash University - avatar Lara Owen, PhD Candidate, Monash University

How doctors convinced the world the planet was worth fighting for

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, is one example of doctors' involvement on the political stage. Wellcome Images/Wikimedia CommonsLas...

James Dunk, Research Fellow, University of Sydney - avatar James Dunk, Research Fellow, University of Sydney

After 2 festival deaths, the NSW government rushed through a new drug homicide crime. But it may do more harm than good

The first of its kind in Australia, the offence of 'drug supply causing death' carries a maximum 20 year sentence. ShutterstockAs the state election loomed last year, the NSW government rushed through...

Elyse Methven, Lecturer in Law, University of Technology Sydney - avatar Elyse Methven, Lecturer in Law, University of Technology Sydney

Voter turnout at New Zealand local elections keeps falling, but paying people to vote could backfire

Rather than encouraging people to become better citizens, rewards and fines can actually reduce peoples’ natural tendencies to do the right thing by others. from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-NDLa...

Julia Talbot-Jones, Lecturer, Victoria University of Wellington - avatar Julia Talbot-Jones, Lecturer, Victoria University of Wellington

The digital human: the cyber version of humanity's quest for immortality

If it were possible to download the neural networks of a human brain, could we preserve a computer simulation of that person? from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-NDImmortality has been a topic of discuss...

David Evans Bailey, PhD Researcher in Virtual Reality, Auckland University of Technology - avatar David Evans Bailey, PhD Researcher in Virtual Reality, Auckland University of Technology

Three ways to fix the problems caused by rezoning inner-city industrial land for mixed-use apartments

Show Works, based in the Melbourne suburb of Preston, makes dance floors, dance equipment and theatre scenery. Andrew Warren, used with permission, Author providedSince 2000, planning authorities in A...

Carl Grodach, Professor and Director of Urban Planning & Design, Monash University - avatar Carl Grodach, Professor and Director of Urban Planning & Design, Monash University

Interesting Ways to Have Fun Without Leaving Your House

Having fun isn’t synonymous to going out. This is what a lot of people should know if they’re looking to do fun things without leaving the comfort of their homes. The truth is that spending time...

News Company - avatar News Company

Become Independent and Install a Solar Power System in your Property

We are certainly living in a very exciting time, and when you consider the technological advances we have witnessed in the last 50 years, it really is amazing. In the 1960s, the Internet emerged and...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Amazon is on fire – here are 5 things you need to know

Huge fires are raging across multiple regions of the Amazon Basin. Guaira Maia/ISARecord fires are raging in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, with more than 2,500 fires currently burning. They are ...

Danilo Ignacio de Urzedo, PhD candidate, University of Sydney - avatar Danilo Ignacio de Urzedo, PhD candidate, University of Sydney

It's not just athletes who get Achilles tendon pain, but exercising is the answer

Basketball fans around the world were recently sickened by the footage of NBA star Kevin Durant’s Achilles tendon rupturing during a game. But while many think it’s only elite athletes...

Sean Docking, Post-doctoral researcher, La Trobe University - avatar Sean Docking, Post-doctoral researcher, La Trobe University

Australia's energy woes will not be solved by reinforcing a monopoly

Australia's energy market has a logjam, Sean Davis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SAThe possibility of blackouts affecting half of Victoria has attracted plenty of attention to a document once read only by industry...

Bruce Mountain, Director, Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Victoria University - avatar Bruce Mountain, Director, Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Victoria University

Tim Fischer had his blind spots, but he was an unsung champion of an Asian-facing Australia

Amid the tributes to former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer and the stories of his authenticity, courage and quirky interests – like trains and military history – what has struck me most...

Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics and host of The Airport Economist, UNSW - avatar Tim Harcourt, J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics and host of The Airport Economist, UNSW

VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on Tim Fischer's legacy - and Scott Morrison's first year

Michelle Grattan talks about the sad news of the passing of former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer with University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor Professor Deep Saini. They also discuss Scott Morrison&...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Catastrophic Queensland floods killed 600,000 cattle and devastated native species

In February, about 600,000 cattle were killed by catastrophic flooding across north Queensland’s Carpentaria Gulf plains. The flood waters rose suddenly, forming a wall of water up to 70km wi...

Gabriel Crowley, Adjunct Principal Research Fellow, James Cook University - avatar Gabriel Crowley, Adjunct Principal Research Fellow, James Cook University

Four home traps that contribute to the gender pay gap

KPMG says Australia's gender pay gap declined from $3.05 an hour in 2014 to $2.43 in 2017. www.shutterstock.comAustralia’s gender pay gap is diminishing, says a new report, but some contributors...

Emma Willamson, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Monash University - avatar Emma Willamson, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Monash University

Australia wants to install military technology in Antarctica – here's why that's allowed

Technology, such as satellite systems, can be used for both military and scientific purposes. ShutterstockThis week, the ABC revealed that the Australian Defence Force wants to roll out military tech...

Tony Press, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania - avatar Tony Press, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

Why some feminists oppose allowing people to choose their sex on birth certificates

Legislation in Victoria would allow people to change the sex on their birth certificates with just a declaration, not sex reassignment surgery. ShutterstockA bill currently before the Victorian parlia...

Holly Lawford-Smith, Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy, University of Melbourne - avatar Holly Lawford-Smith, Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy, University of Melbourne

Plants are going extinct up to 350 times faster than the historical norm

Plant extinctions have skyrocketed, driven in large part by land clearing and climate change. Graphic Node/Unsplash, CC BY-SAEarth is seeing an unprecedented loss of species, which some ecologists are...

Jaco Le Roux, Associate Professor, Macquarie University - avatar Jaco Le Roux, Associate Professor, Macquarie University

Sick and Tired of Your Dead End Job? Try Teaching!

Tired of the same old grind at the office? Want an opportunity to impact lives both in your community and around the world? Do you love to travel and have new experiences? Teaching English is the perfect job for you! All you need is a willingness to ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Impact of an Aging Population in Australia

There’s an issue on the horizon that Australia needs to prepare for. The portion of elderly citizens that make up the country’s overall population is increasing, and we might not have the infrastructure in place to support this. Australians h...

News Company - avatar News Company

LifeStyle

Interesting Ways to Have Fun Without Leaving Your House

Having fun isn’t synonymous to going out. This is what a lot of people should know if they’re ...

A Guide for Tenants

The cost of purchasing a home has been increasing, and the size of deposits needed, make buying pr...

Top ways for men to look after their skin

According to Jack Simmons, from Aboutmen, more and more men are taking pride in their appearance a...

Top 10 Caravan Storage Tips & Tricks

Taking caravan trips is a popular Aussie pastime, but if you have spent more than a few days in ...