Choice backs consumer data access scheme

'Open data' regime for consumers would allow better-informed decision making

Advocacy group Choice has called on the federal government to introduce measures that would allow consumers to access that data that businesses hold about them in order to drive competition between service providers.

An 'open data' regime would allow consumers to more effectively compare offerings between service providers, particularly in industries such as energy utilities.

In a submission to the government's Competition Policy Review, the consumer advocacy group cites the examples of the midata program in the UK and the US Green Button program.

In November 2011 the UK government announced the midata program, which involved initially partnering with 26 organisations to allow consumers to access their data in an electronic format. Participating organisations included Google, utilities, Visa and MasterCard, Lloyds Banking Group, and telco Three.

"We hope individuals will be able to use this data to gain an insight into their own behaviour, make more informed choices and better decisions, to manage their affairs more efficiently, and to obtain the products and services that best meet their needs," then UK consumer affairs minister Edward Davey wrote in a blog entry about the midata launch.

"For example, your phone company has exact data on how you use your phone – much more than you will ever receive in a bill summary. But if you had all the information that business held on you – you could use that data using price comparison sites or phone apps to get a deal that best fits the way you use your phone."

The US Green Button program, launched in 2012, allows consumers to download their energy usage data from utilities in the form of an XML file at the click of a website button. The US Department of Energy lists some 35 utilities as currently supporting Green Button and another 38 as planning to.

In Australia Choice believes the starting point for a scheme would be smart meters, "which are collecting unprecedented amounts of information about household energy consumption".

"This has the potential to overcome the massive information asymmetry between energy retailers and their customers. It also can also provide opportunities for third-party innovators and price-based competition," the submission by Choice states.

"While it is not necessary that government act as the provider of data, or the creator of comparison tools and similar services, there is a role for intervention to remove barriers that prevent data from being shared, and to give consumers confidence that it can be accessed securely," Choice argues.

"Such a reform agenda would also help address emerging competition issues around consumer data and market power, as discussed in Section Five of this submission. For example, if we allow energy retailers to put up walled gardens around smart meter data, preventing its portability and shareability, this will simply reinforce the market power of incumbents, and justify perceptions that smart meters have cost households a lot of money for few if any benefits."

Choice also argued for other competition reforms, including a flexible 'fair use' copyright scheme and changes to reduce the higher prices paid by Australians for digital goods, such as music and TV show downloads.

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