Govt announces bold ‘universal data rights’ for all Australian consumers

The Federal Government is committing to a progressive new ‘universal data rights’ agenda that will see consumers given legal ownership of the data they generate when engaging with retailers, telcos, banks and utility providers.

The announcement is short on detail but it’s high on potential, offering citizens new market power by way of detailed insight into their consumer behaviour – not to mention new opportunities for data-hungry new enterprises.

Speaking at a data transparency conference in Washington last week, Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor said that “in the modern digital economy, access to open standardised data and a common understanding of digital identity are the next great enablers of regulatory reform and competition policy.”

The government is therefore currently producing “a platform of policy, legislation and standards” around data rights and digital identity that will “support consumers” to get a better deal.

In practice, this means that the government is promising to work with industry to create a set of APIs that will make accessing the data possible for consumers – and third parties.

“So the consumer owns their own data,” explained Taylor. “Those standards will be specific to each industry and will typically include usage history, pricing and package information.”

That will be combined, said Taylor, with “a Government-facilitated digital identity that allows providers to accept pre-established identities with high levels of integrity.”

Taylor went to some effort to frame the initiative according to free market principles. While he believes, generally speaking, that the market “is best left to its own devices”, he justified the intrusion here as an occasion where the Government can play “a crucial role” in facilitating both consumer and industry leverage of the emerging opportunities around data.

“Customer ownership, citizen ownership of data, and access to a common digital identity for businesses and citizens is one of those areas where government intervention can have an enormous impact.”

Opening this data, Taylor thinks will “broaden that very powerful idea of consumer as regulator.”

“Frankly, they do a better job,” he said.

So what will consumers actually be able to do with their data?

Essentially, the government thinks consumers will use the data to improve their consumer decisions, encouraging competition.

“Take energy as an example,” said Taylor.

“We have seen 10 to 20 percent increases in electricity and gas bills in Australia in the last 12 months – consumers wanting to reduce their costs need to make complex price and service comparisons using their own historical usage.

“To fix this, we need to allow energy users to own their own data. This will allow them, or more likely third party applications, to make comparisons of available plans using that data.”

If the customer then decided to change providers in this scenario, then that would be streamlined via the second part of the plan – a government-facilitated digital identity that will allow consumers switch services in a matter of minutes, and with little hassle.

“As someone who has focused on competition policy for much of my career, this is a massive breakthrough, offering customers and businesses, I think, enormous benefits,” Taylor added.

At face value, the idea has potential and looks, at the very least, like a terrific opportunity for Australia’s start-up community, which will now have new opportunities in previously untapped datasets.

How that will play out in reality – and how this new degree of access is actually made practical for end-users specifically – will be interesting.  And the intervention brings to mind something Ronald Reagan once said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Public release of the ‘Trusted Digital Identity Framework’ is expected within the next few weeks.

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