Privacy Law and Policy Reporter
Controversy over the introduction of Calling Number Display on telephones has been deepened by the weaknesses in Telstra’s advertising in the lead-up to the introduction of the new service.
After six years of debate, negotiations and reports, a major advertising campaign has heralded the arrival of Calling Number Display to the residential telephone market in Australia.
Calling Number Display (CND), which is part of the wider range of Calling Line Identification (CLI) technologies, raises significant privacy issues. CND has been controversial in countries such as the US and the UK, and in many cases regulators have stepped in to force carriers to provide customers with better privacy protection.
Many readers will be aware of the main features of CND from previous discussions in PLPR (see 3 PLPR 8 and 45; 2 PLPR 46; 1 PLPR 24, 101, 124). CND informs the call receiver of the identity of the calling party. This makes it possible to know who is calling (or at least, what number they are calling from) before picking up the phone. But while the technology has some uses in the home, many residential customers use other technologies such as answering machines to perform a similar function. CND’s main application will be in the commercial world where it makes it possible for companies to improve the speed of their service, track phone calls and store records of callers.
This raises significant privacy issues: CND allows organisations such as businesses and government agencies to keep a record of the contact time and call number whenever a person makes a call. They can automatically reverse-match the calling number with either their own records or an electronic phone directory, allowing the organisation to record where someone is calling from (and potentially who they are) before they have even had the opportunity to speak to anyone and without the caller knowing. This sort of use of CND has made it one of the more controversial privacy issues in recent years in other countries.
As a relative latecomer to CND, Australia was in a position to learn from overseas experience in the introduction of CND. Former telecommunications regulator AUSTEL conducted an inquiry into CND through its Privacy Advisory Committee (PAC), which released its final CND report in January 1996. One of the major issues which the PAC report considered was whether consumers should by default be in or out of CND. AUSTEL recommended that CND should be introduced on the basis that calling numbers would be displayed unless a customer had opted out of the system or was a silent line customer. In addition, consumers would be given the option of freely blocking on an individual call basis or permanently blocking their line.
There was, however, a major proviso on the AUSTEL recommendation: if the onus of privacy protection was to lie with individual customers, the onus of responsibility for informing customers would lie with the carriers. Carriers would be required to conduct a public education campaign which gave consumers adequate information about CND prior to its introduction, allowing them to make an informed choice about their CND status. Specifically, the public education campaign would need to inform consumers of three key issues:
The PAC report specified that before introducing CND, carriers would need to establish 80 per cent awareness of these three goals amongst the general population as well as amongst such special needs groups as people with disabilities, those of non-English speaking background and rural and remote consumers.
Telstra’s initial public education campaign ran from September to November 1997. It consisted principally of three television commercials, press advertisements, an insert with telephone bills, information booklets, a 1800 number for further information and media coverage. During the period of the campaign, Telstra tracked its impact through a telephone research survey conducted by Research International. Telstra also established a CND Public Education Campaign Reference Group consisting of consumer representatives from the Australian Council of Social Services, the Communications Law Centre, the Consumer Telecommunications Network and the Ethnic Communities Council of Western Australia. The Australian Communications Authority also contributed to the panel.
From its first meeting, it was clear that Telstra had a different understanding of the role of the Reference Group than the consumer representatives. The latter were surprised to find that Telstra had already finished preparing the main elements of the campaign. Other than for a little fine-tuning, the TV ads, the press ads, and the bill insert could not be altered. The Panel’s input would effectively be limited to other issues such as assisting in reaching special needs groups, contributing to some of the more detailed information resources provided to consumers and monitoring the results of Telstra’s research into public awareness of CND.
Telstra’s reluctance to accept input on the mainstream media campaign was particularly unfortunate, given that it was often hard to understand how the campaign was related to the public education guidelines laid down by AUSTEL. The advertisements concentrated almost exclusively on the positives of CND, largely ignoring the significant privacy problems which has made CND so controversial in countries such as the US. In fact, when the campaign mentioned the privacy issue, it was mainly to promote CND as a technology which enhances personal privacy by allowing individuals to screen callers. Although research had consistently shown that consumers were seriously concerned about the business use of personal information generated by CND, the campaign did not address this issue. Instead, it focused on situations where residential customers would use CND with other residential customers by showing how an eight-year-old boy uses CND to communicate with his uncle and a prospective girlfriend.
In its defence, Telstra argued that it did not wish to be seen to question the integrity of its business customers by suggesting that they would use CND information unfairly. Cynics might suggest that Telstra’s reluctance is more concerned with the fact that CND should be a significant source of revenue for Telstra, which will charge for individuals to receive CND information. Residential customers, for example, will pay some $60 per line per year to receive CND, in addition to buying a new handset or attachment to display the incoming call.
Taken as a whole, the campaign was so heavily tilted towards positive promotion of the CND product that it was barely distinguishable from any other marketing campaign for a new technology. It was almost as if the PAC process had never occurred. When this issue was raised, Telstra’s defence was that it was not a marketing campaign because it did not mention prices and did not immediately tell customers how to subscribe to the service. Nevertheless, by mid-November Telstra was heavily promoting the service to business customers through a special mailout which urged businesses to get ready for the launch of CND in December.
In fact, not only did Telstra fail to present a balanced view of the impact of CND, but some of the campaign information risked misleading consumers about existing privacy safeguards. The bill insert — which was the most detailed information about CND which most households saw — gave little information about how businesses will use CND. Worse, it stated that:
Guidelines also exist which provide privacy protection standards for the use of information collected by companies. These guidelines restrict use to relevant purposes such as returning your call.
The statement failed to say that these guidelines are purely voluntary, and that there is no avenue of recourse or complaint when these guidelines are breached. Consumers would only find this out if they read the entire contents of the much longer information booklet which was only available if they requested a CND information pack.
The flawed public education campaign was made worse by poor internal organisation and processes that seemed to create hurdles for anyone who wished to arrange a permanent line blocking of their telephone number. Customers began calling the 1800 number to request blocking from September. They experienced delays as they waded through a complex automated menu before being able to speak to a customer service operator to arrange blocking: this was not an upfront option on the main menu of the information line. Even when customers had got through to an operator to arrange line blocking, Telstra informed them that they could not arrange permanent blocking over the phone — no matter what identification could be provided, and in contrast to the general move towards phone-based transactions. Instead, they were required to fill in a detailed form before they could arrange permanent blocking. To complicate matters further, no forms were ready to be sent. It was not until November that these were ready to be sent out. Indeed, for around a week customers were being told that blocking could not be arranged until after 1 December, and that they should call back then — a mistake which resulted from an internal communications breakdown within Telstra.
The CND story is not over, and it is still possible for an independent public education campaign to achieve the original AUSTEL PAC public education objectives. Nevertheless, Telstra’s handling of the leadup to the introduction of CND has been immensely disappointing. AUSTEL decided to allow the introduction of opt-out CND on the basis that carriers would exercise good faith in allowing their customers to make a well-informed choice about their use of CND. The experience of recent months raises serious questions about Telstra’s commitment to that objective.
Tim Dixon, Director, Australian Privacy Foundation.
Tim Dixon represented the Communications Law Centre on Telstra’s Public Education Campaign Reference Group. In the next edition of PLPR, he will examine the issues surrounding the AUSTEL target of 80 per cent public awareness and Telstra’s response to Senator Alston’s statement that CND should not be launched unless the AUSTEL targets are achieved.