Increase privacy for electoral rolls and White Pages

Increase privacy for electoral rolls and White Pages

By Jacqueline Maley

The privacy rights of Australians are under review, in a planned shake-up of the use of public records for direct marketing purposes.

Questions have been raised about the use of information gleaned from electoral rolls and telephone directories to target householders in marketing campaigns, after research conducted by the Federal Privacy Commissioner shows 70 per cent of Australians believe the electoral roll should not be used in this way.

In an advisory information sheet, to be released in coming weeks, Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton is expected to issue strict guidelines on the use of public information by private companies wishing to use it for commercial purposes. The Commissioner has not ruled out the possibility of legislative reform to address the issue.

The debate pits marketers and charities, who argue certain information should be available for use in the course of legitimate business, against privacy and consumer lobby groups. The latter say the targeting of householders for marketing campaigns is an abuse of privacy rights.

Currently, the Federal Information Privacy Principles govern the collection and use of personal information by Commonwealth government agencies. Similar legislation exists on a State level to regulate the State government sector. In addition, the National Privacy Principles were introduced in December 2001, as amendments to the Privacy Act, to cover the use of Australians’ personal information in parts of the private sector.

The amendments have been in place for over a year, but businesses and consumers are still confused about how our privacy laws apply to the use of public information. According to Tim Dixon of the Privacy Foundation, this is because the law is riddled with holes and ambiguities, making it difficult to interpret. Further, Mr Dixon said, legislative exemptions for small business and political organisations represent a “cynical double standard” on the part of legislators.

Mr Dixon said the use of public information for commercial purposes is a global issue. The problem lies in the fact that although this sort of information has always been in the public domain, technology advances have made its uses more invasive, according to Mr Dixon. Through manipulating and combining information from various sources, marketers can now “put a real picture of a person together”.

What Australians object to, Mr Dixon told Image & Data Manager, is databases collected for one purpose and used for another. The electoral roll, for example, exists to ensure a democratic and transparent voting system, but has become, by default, the best source of information on Australians, readily available for commercial use.

”The crux of the issue is transparency,” said Jodie Sangster, the Legal and Regulatory Affairs Manager at the Australian Direct Marketers Association (ADMA). ADMA represents over 500 direct marketing members, mostly companies who are data-compilers, list-brokers and list owners, and as such heavily reliant on public records. The ability to check the validity and currency of their information against public registers is vital to these companies, according to Ms Sangster. Without it, they run the risk of calling people by the wrong name, sending letters to the wrong address, or even addressing mail to people who have recently died.


Ms Sangster said ADMA’s members do respect the privacy of the consumer. However she argues there must be a balance between consumers’ control over their information and the needs of businesses. This can be achieved through openness in the data-collection process, and educating consumers on their rights, including how to get off mailing lists they don’t wish to be on.

Conversely, the Privacy Foundation argues that instead of asking to be taken off a list, people should nominate up-front whether they wish to be targeted by marketers or charity organisations in the first place. The Foundation also advocates the abolition of Telstra fees for silent numbers and a complete ban on the use of the electoral roll for marketing purposes.

According to Mr Dixon, Australia trails the rest of the world in the regulation of the use of public records, and this is out of keeping with the way most Australians feel on the issue. “People want to be in control of their data, they want to exercise choices about what happens with their data,” he said. “After all, who actually owns the information?”