Energy prices, green credentials head ACCC concerns

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Addressing runaway energy and telecommunications prices, dodgy environmental claims and ever-increasing online scam losses will headline the work of Australia’s consumer watchdog over the next 12 months.

Unveiling her annual compliance and enforcement priorities at a Committee for Economic Development Australia event in Sydney on Tuesday, ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said cost-of-living pressures would also strongly feature in the commission’s 2023/24 concerns.

“Our priorities must and do reflect the issues impacting the … economy, consumers and businesses,” Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.

She said it was especially important that Australians could make informed decisions about what services were right for them in terms of price and quality at a time when they were struggling with shrinking household budgets.

Outlining the impacts of the war in Ukraine and what she called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s weaponising of energy, Ms Cass-Gottlieb said resulting record high prices and disruption to global markets were likely to continue into the mid-term.

In response, the ACCC’s enforcement of the federal government’s emergency price cap on the sale of wholesale gas would continue to consume “a substantial share” of its attention in monitoring and reporting on the conduct of players over the year ahead.

Another area where the commission would further broaden its efforts was in targeting greenwashing claims in relation to environmental efforts and sustainability.

“Consumers, shareholders and governments are looking for legitimate change, not smoke and mirrors when it comes to environmental initiatives implemented by businesses,” Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.

“The ACCC can play a role by ensuring businesses tell the truth about the environmental impacts of the goods and services they supply.”

A recent internet sweep of potential greenwashing claims revealed 57 per cent of the businesses reviewed made concerning claims about their credentials, most notably those in the cosmetics, clothing, and food and drink sectors.

When it came to certifying products, businesses needed to cite credible and robust scientific evidence, but increasingly they were failing to do so.

In the digital economy, the ACCC’s first woman chair said so-called dark patterns involving consumer difficulty in trying to unsubscribe from paid services and the use of personal data to exploit sales topped the list of compliance issues.

Others included the manipulation of online reviews and search results, and comparison websites and social media influencers not disclosing commercial relationships.

Elsewhere, Ms Cass-Gottlieb said the watchdog continued to maintain an active enforcement program, with a strong focus on deterrence.

“We had success in court last year against large businesses, including ride-share providers, food manufacturers, retail telecommunications providers, motor vehicle manufacturers, waste services companies, dairy processors and digital platforms,” she said.

Those cases generated penalties totalling more than $200 million, including $60 million by Google and $21 million by Uber for false or confusing representations.

The Federal Court also ordered Australia’s three largest internet providers -Telstra, Optus and TPG – to pay out $33 million after admitting to misleading customers about the maximum speeds of internet plans.

Among the ACCC’s main upcoming cases is that against Mastercard, alleging anti-competitive conduct in relation to EFTPOS and cost routing.

Ms Cass-Gottlieb said the ongoing number one consumer complaint to the ACCC concerns how people can enforce their rights when a product or service is faulty.

 

John Kidman
(Australian Associated Press)

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