Australians face a complex, confusing and often inconsistent environment when it comes to regulating how businesses and consumers should conduct themselves online, a new report has found.

Drowning in Codes of Conduct, by Chris Connolly and David Vaile from the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales, is the first report to comprehensively analyse self regulatory codes of online conduct developed in Australia.

It reveals a web of often contradictory codes, and questions whether the current model protects consumers – especially as many offshore providers decline to be involved.

The report examines 16 Codes of Conduct relevant to Australian consumers’ online activity. It compares these codes against four Best Practice Guidelines for codes from ASIC, ACCC, ACMA and 'the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner' (formerly known as the Privacy Commissioner). It also maps their coverage over the top 50 websites visited by Australians and top 19 ISPs.

Issues for consumers include:

  • the very number of codes potentially applicable to an 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’, 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.

The report was launched in Melbourne today at the national Consumers Forum, celebrating 50 years of Consumer Rights, on World Consumer Rights Day.

Media contact: David Vaile,