27 April 2001

Speech to the Consumer Electronics Show, Sydney

Thank you for inviting me to speak this morning on Federal Government initatives promoting consumer sovereignty and boosting consumer confidence in new technology initiatives.

When I took over portfolio responsibility for consumer affairs 3 years ago, I wanted to put in place a policy framework that would embrace the consumer issues of the new Millennium.

E-Commerce and the use of new technologies is changing the way consumers transact and is bringing new challenges to Governments around the world.

Today's consumer is only a mouse click away from businesses all around the world. This has brought a new level of choice to Australian consumers and a new level of opportunity for our businesses to tap a global market.

In Australia, use of the internet and other new technologies continues to be among the world's highest.

According to the latest ABS statistics, home computer access has increased from 31% of households in 1996 to 56% of households by November 2000.

Since November 1998, home Internet access has been growing at a rate of around 50% a year.

In November 1998, 16% of households had home internet access - this figure grew to 37% of households by November last year.

And Australians have shown a strong willingness to do business online.

Only 1% of adults used the Internet to make payments in 1998, but by 2000, this figure had grown to 9%.

Similarly, buying goods or services for personal use via the Net has increased from 3% in 1998 to 7% last year.

This embrace of new technology has been recognised in a number of significant quarters.

Last July, a Goldman Sachs report noted that "Australia is highly tech-literate. Internet penetration rates are the highest in the Asia Pacific, personal computer use is widespread, investment in computer hardware and software is strong and major Australian companies have begun the process of moving online".

In its "Global Ranking System" of 2000 Merrill Lynch placed us third in the 'Technology' category behind Sweden and the USA.

While in the IMF's Economic Outlook 2000, Australia came 2nd to Sweden in terms of spending on information, communications and technology.

Simply put, E-Commerce is one of the great modern tools for consumers and businesses, a fact which has not been overlooked by Australians.

Considering the seemingly limitless choices available to consumers on the Internet, it is no surprise that some consumers are little unsure about doing spending money on the Net.

And this is where the role of Government is crucial.

The Federal Government believes that E-Commerce and associated new technology should be maximised to the benefit of consumers while maintaining flexibility for business growth and innovation.

It is important that a fine balance is struck between ensuring consumers feel protected when engaging in E-commerce and allowing businesses the freedom to develop new technology.

One of the first things I did when I came to office, was to appoint an expert group of consumer and industry professionals to advise me on ways to ensure that E-commerce regulatory policy was both business and consumer friendly.

Working with Government, the E-Commerce Expert Group looked at what could be done to guide businesses and consumers towards achieving best practice in electronic commerce.

The result of this was a new code of conduct for e-commerce. It is titled "Building Consumer Sovereignty in Electronic Commerce: A Best Practice Model for Business", and is a world-class code of conduct for businesses operating over the Internet.

Essentially, it is a guide for businesses about what their consumer and legal obligations are in the online world.

In many ways, these are not very different to the responsibilities businesses face in the offline world. Being treated fairly and properly dealing with complaints are what consumers should expect from any business.

The online world, of course, brings with it new consumer issues such as privacy and transaction security which is where the Model is helping to guide businesses to areas of best practice.

I have also been keen to ensure that Australia plays an active part in the international dialogue on electronic commerce.

The Best Practice Model was one of the world's first responses to the OECD Guidelines for Consumer Protection in Electronic Commerce and Australia has been frequently called on to participate in a number of international forums to discuss electronic commerce consumer policy.

An important challenge for government is to make sure consumers are properly informed when they enter the marketplace and that businesses are aware of their obligations to consumers.

Indeed, giving consumers adequate information is a key plank in the Government's consumer sovereignty framework.

That framework goes to the heart of the Government's approach to regulatory reform. It recognises that consumers, properly equipped, are the best judges of their own economic well being. All they need are the right tools.

There are four key elements to consumer sovereignty.

First and foremost, consumers must feel sure the Government has in place a legal system that will protect them. Protection is crucial.

Second, consumers must enjoy a wide range of choice of products and services.

Thirdly, in cases where their standards are not met, they need effective redress to quickly remedy transactions that are unfair.

And finally, they must have sufficient information to choose between those products in an informed way.

The Government has been a pioneer in providing online information tools for consumers, consistent with the principles of consumer sovereignty.

Our key web site, www.consumersonline.gov.au, is significant in being the first attempt by a Commonwealth Government to centralise the myriad of consumer information available in Australia.

Taking the concept of a "one-stop-shop", the web site provides a category-based listing of information available from consumer protection agencies, community organisations and industry associations.

Today, I would like to unveil the next stage in the development of Consumers Online, which improves on the original site and includes an array of new satellite sites dedicated to specific areas of consumer protection.

It also includes a comprehensive online complaints directory which consumers can use to find the relevant body to handle their complaint.

As you can see we now have five Web sites branching off Consumers Online.

I would like to take this opportunity to announce the launch of www.selfregulation.gov.au.

The self-regulation site will act as a gateway to national self-regulation schemes in Australia and will also provide ready access to policy guidelines and useful information on self-regulation.

We have a newly developed Product Recalls site, www.recalls.gov.au, which provides up-to-date information on a wide range of product recalls.

Consumers can search under product categories or for specific items to get information on any unsafe products they may have bought and how they should deal with them.

Our E-Commerce site, www.ecommerce.treasury.gov.au is designed to assist businesses with adoption of the Best Practice Model and contains a number of interactive tools and practical information about the consumer issues surrounding e-commerce.

www.consumer.gov.au is the newly developed Ministerial Council on Consumer Affairs site which represents the combined work of Commonwealth and State and Territory Consumer Ministers.

The final site is a support site for an exciting new piece of software that is now being developed and that I am proud to publicly unveil here today for the first time.

It is called Ping and I believe it is the next evolutionary step in providing information to consumers.

Later this year, consumers will be able to freely download a copy of this software to install on their computer. Once installed, the software will work to detect when a consumer may encounter certain risky situations while browsing the Internet.

It will be able to detect these situations and deliver relevant information to them on their desktop while they browse.

Firstly, Ping will sit as an icon at the bottom of the screen. As soon as a consumer starts using the Internet, Ping starts monitoring their browsing to detect whether they may be accessing Web pages where Ping can offer useful advice.

If it finds information, it flashes to let the consumer know that it has something related to what they are looking at. The consumer can choose to ignore the flash and continue browsing - Ping doesn't interrupt or slow down a consumer's browsing - but if they decide to click, a customisable window pops up like so.

Within the top Ping window, the consumer can read a number of tips related to the type of purchase they are making, while the bottom Ping window displays topical information that will be provided from consumer regulators, the ACCC and ASIC.

For instance, this may include information about a current recall or a prevalent scam.

The information contained in the two Ping windows will also contain links to relevant Web sites where consumers can research more about the chosen topic.

Consumers can also ask Ping for certain advice at any time. A click of the top icon reveals a list of category headings that can be tapped by the consumer.

What Ping will be - is a world first.

To intelligently detect when a consumer is about to make a purchase and then give information to help them has long been considered the "holy grail" of consumer education.

And this is precisely what Ping will do.

But it doesn't end there. In developing Ping, we haven't sought to limit the scope of what could be possible with this software and have introduced routines that allow the intelligent software behind Ping to be adapted for other applications that may help consumers.

We are now talking with a range of consumer and industry organisations about how Ping can be expanded down the track to deliver additional consumer benefits.

Ping will be publicly released later this year but you can see a beta-version of the software demonstrated at the Consumer Affairs stand throughout the Show.

Our Consumer Affairs people are also available at the stand to answer any technical questions about the development of Ping.

I'm proud to be here today to present a Consumer Affairs package that is relevant to today's modern consumer.

We have a sound policy framework and model for electronic commerce, a dynamic Web portal and now, an intelligent agent to help consumers on their desktop before they spend money online.

This ensures that Australia remains at the vanguard of consumer protection policy in ecommerce.

Thank you.