Report finds online consumers and providers ‘Drowning in Codes of Conduct’

At the national Consumers Forum in Melbourne celebrating 50 years of Consumer Rights, on World Consumer Rights Day, researchers from UNSW’s Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre launched a report revealing a complex, confusing and inconsistent web of Codes of Conduct which could cover an online transaction, and questions whether this model works to protect consumers in the new environment — especially as many big offshore providers decline to sign up to those affecting them.

‘Drowning in Codes of Conduct: An analysis of codes of conduct applying to online activity in Australia’ by Chris Connolly and David Vaile from the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the Faculty of Law, University of NSW, March 2012.

The report examines 16 Codes of Conduct relevant to Australian consumers’ online activity (13 active, 3 ‘draft’ but ‘alive’ enough to consider). It compares these Codes against four Best Practice Guidelines for codes from ASIC, ACCC, ACMA and ‘the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner’ (the function formerly known as the Privacy Commissioner). It also maps their coverage over the top 50 web sites visited by Australians and top 19 ISPs.

It’s the first report to comprehensively analyse self regulatory codes of conduct developed in Australia for online conduct.

Individually & together, these Codes do potentially offer online users the prospect of assistance with unsatisfactory conduct by businesses and others. But whether they meet expectations is unclear.

Issues for consumers with these Codes include:

  • the very number of codes which could potentially be applicable to a given online transaction or issue: consumers and business would be challenged to identify them all
  • the complexity of their overlapping coverage
  •  wide variations/inconsistency in language, procedure, remedies and robustness
  • uncertainty about coverage and ‘jurisdiction’ broadly considered, including an often limited or non-existent capacity to involve dominant online service providers operating offshore
  • patchy or very low sign-up by industry participants, and in some cases difficulty in ascertaining who is a ‘member’ of the code, and what this means
  • inconsistent approaches to effective complaint handling
  • inconsistent or undeveloped approaches to cross-referral to other codes or code bodies where an inquiry may be outside scope of the first code considered (to prevent ‘falling through the cracks’)
  •  a tendency to focus on industry rather than consumer convenience in regulatory scheme design.

Contact: David Vaile, phone or SMS 0414 731 249

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