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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14926

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (6:28 PM) —I wish to highlight a serious and unchecked problem within my electorate and, I know, nationwide. It is an embarrassing issue for many families but potentially financially crippling. I speak of the muck industry; that is, the scourge of Internet dumping or the Internet dialler scam. Just how seriously should this parliament take the matter? Maybe the following story will illustrate the nature of this insidious practice. In January of this year I received a phone call from a distraught family after they had received a phone bill for $5,000. This phone bill was accrued in under two weeks due to software downloaded onto their computer, which caused their computer to hang up from their Internet service provider and dial a premium rate service that then incurred a cost of $4.95 a minute. The disconnection from their normal ISP and reconnection to a premium rate connection was carried out surreptitiously, so this family was totally unaware of the cost they were accruing.

To add salt to the wound of this horrendous $5,000 bill, the premium rate connection site was an adult pornography site. This meant that the family's teenage son, who is under 18, had access to explicit adult pornography, but in this case the teenager did not actually use this service. No matter, though; the damage is done and the bill just gets bigger and bigger. The only time the unsuspecting family find out about the unknown involuntary switch from their normal ISP to the premium connection is when they are advised, out of the blue, of an unusually large phone bill and their phone is cut off.

To assist this shocked family, my office contacted the self-regulatory body for premium rate calls, the Telephone Information Services Standards Council, or TISSC. They explained that I needed to obtain a copy of the dialler from the family's computer and establish what breaches of the code of practice may have taken place. Thanks to help from Mr Gerry Van Eyck, the owner of local computer company Tiger Computers in Devonport, my electorate officer Shane May managed to determine that the dialler on the family's computer was indeed in breach of several sections of the TISSC code of practice.

Upon learning of this Internet dumping problem, I initiated a public awareness campaign to warn others within my electorate of the dangers of Internet dumping. Utilising the local newspaper, television, ABC Radio and my own newsletter, I managed to alert my electorate. This resulted in dozens of families with excessive telephone bills ranging from $200 to $5,000 contacting my office. This has highlighted the growing problem of Internet dumping and the disgraceful tactics Australian companies are using to maximise profits. Two Australian companies in particular are responsible for these excessive bills—Sound Advertising Pty Ltd and Mediatel. A cursory glance on the TISSC web site dealing with 1900 complaints will not only edify members on this matter but reinforce what I am saying here. When unsuspecting families are surfing the Internet, they come across advertising screens that offer free Internet pornography. The real problem lies in the inability of consumers to exit easily from these advertising screens. The screens are designed to trap consumers into saying `I accept' to viewing Internet pornography at premium rate sites.

Recently, with Department of the Parliamentary Reporting Staff approval, I experimented with one of these advertisements and I saw for myself that, for the average user, it is virtually impossible to say no to agreeing to download the dialler that would dump the user from the Internet and reconnect him or her to a premium rate 1900 number site. For many screens, the only choice is to click on the `I accept' button. If you try to escape or go back without clicking on the `I accept' button, a new screen comes up telling you that you have made a mistake and that you have to click on the `I accept' button. I did finally exit without downloading the program, but it took seven concerted attempts to do so. Clearly others, including children, are not so lucky or persistent.

The government has publicly trumpeted that it wants to deal with the problem of unwanted pornography and sexually explicit material being inappropriately sent to children in family homes over phone lines and the Internet. It has introduced laws on telephone sex lines and Internet content. But the government also needs to deal with the dual problem of Internet dumping and premium rate connection services which hit families hard on two fronts—that is, firstly, children viewing explicit adult pornography on the family computer; and, secondly, excessively high phone bills that have the potential to cripple struggling families. The government is currently allowing the Internet dumping industry to flourish. According to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman's report for the December 2002 quarter, complaints about Internet diallers are `going through the roof and Internet dumping is now the largest single category of billing complaints'.

I would like to explain in more detail the problems associated with this dual practice. As I mentioned previously, the first serious issue is the totally inappropriate methods of advertising by the companies involved. Currently, they have free reign on the methods they choose to advertise, and the companies prey on computer-illiterate individuals who are unsure of how to say no to downloading a dialler to the family computer.

The second serious issue is the so-called contractual agreement between the consumer and the premium rate service. I ask: how can a contract be binding between a premium rate service provider and a person who does not have permission from the phone account holder to use the telephone line to accrue a bill of $4.95 per minute? It is a concern to me that anyone in a household can agree to a premium rate connection contract but the person who has the telephone in their name cops the bill. I also have grave concerns on the unchecked ability for a child or adolescent to click on a `yes' button which is then deemed as a contract between the consumer and a premium rate service provider. How can a contract be binding when an agreement to view explicit adult pornography is arranged between a minor and an adult pornography company?

On the issue of children having access to explicit adult pornographic material, the government and others lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of parents. They claim that a warning page states that the user has to be over 18 years of age to use this service. What a load of baloney! It is actually a sneaky, positive marketing tool used by the companies to encourage children to use the site for differing reasons. Children seek to determine whether in fact they need to be over 18 to use the service—that is, they try it to test the claim. Still more would view the statement as a challenge to be overcome, and others are naturally inquisitive and like to see what services are available to adults over 18.

The adult 1900 pornography age controls are like placing an alcohol and cigarette dispensing machine within the family home. Again, the providers and the government attempt to place the blame on parents by saying that they are not supervising their children. Indeed, parents should be aware of what their children are doing on the Internet and on their computers, but it is totally unrealistic to expect parents to be able to deal with this problem. The bottom line is that children should not have access to adult pornographic material. Like alcohol and tobacco sales, there are laws that can apply to Internet dumping. These include the Federal Crimes Act, state and territory film classification enforcement laws and the Trade Practices Act. The government has not enforced any of these laws and, as such, more specific regulations are needed to ensure a person is over 18 years of age when using these services. We cannot rely on self-regulation from children.

I know that since the middle of the year 2000 the government has been aware of the Internet dialler scam supplying explicit pornography to children and then, in turn, seeking payment from parents. However, it was not until May 2002 that the minister directed the Australian Communications Authority to investigate the issue. It is now May 2003 and we still do not have any answers to these problems. I am asking the government to implement changes to the act to ensure that proof of age is required to these premium rate companies prior to a PIN number being issued. Once this PIN number is issued, it ensures the user is over 18 and definitely wants to use the premium rate service.

I am also calling on Telstra to stop providing this premium rate adult pornography service. I believe that in its current form the premium rate adult pornography service is creating more headaches than it is worth to Telstra. Telstra have a community responsibility and as such I am sure they see a need to halt this service to stop the huge bills being run up by struggling families for a service they do not even want. If Telstra feel they can take no responsibility towards families being hit with these massive bills and children viewing pornographic material, they should think again. It is like children going to the movies. Are you telling me that the cinema operators take no responsibility for a child seeing an X-rated movie? It is absolute rubbish. I call on Telstra to halt this service immediately and get out of what I call the muck industry. (Time expired)