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Ban the sale of unsafe goods, Australia's consumer protection body says

Editorial Staff

"Many people are surprised to learn that it is not illegal to sell unsafe goods in Australia. Many think there’s already a law that says goods have to be safe. Well, there isn’t, but there should be," says Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

In support of his contention, Sims referred, in a speech last night, to the continuing recall of Takata airbags. Takata has already gone out of business after initiating a global recall of its flagship product which is found in all manner of vehicles across the world. "In 2018 this issue took more Commission time than any other." The complications are that there is no longer a company to back the recall and the vast numbers of vehicles that have to be taken into dealerships for the defects to be remedied. But Sims also referred to button batteries - apparently there are many incidents of children being taken to hospital having swallowed the batteries but Sims did not explain how this can be because the product is unsafe or how the manufacturers are to blame for children having access to the batteries: the damned things are already next to impossible to get out of the shrink-wrapped bubble packs. However, there is far more evidence of the sale, both within Australia and imported by Australians via on-line shopping, of infants' sleeping products that are unsafe.

The ACCC estimates that each year the cost of harm from unsafe consumer goods in Australia is at least, and likely [to be] much more than, five [thousand million Australian] dollars. According to our analysis, each day 2 people are killed and 145 injured by unsafe products.

Examples of harm include electrocution from faulty appliances, burns from ignited flammable clothing, choking on children’s toys, suffocation in cots and beds and drowning in swimming pools."

-- Rod Sims, Chairman, ACCC

The ACCC is also concerned about the so-called "Internet of Things" or "interconnected devices" as Sims called them. "Along with concerns about privacy and consumer data, these products also pose risks in a product safety sense. Car driving systems have been taken over by hackers. Braking systems have failed due to malware. Smoke detectors have failed due to lost connectivity. And a recharging lithium battery could be compromised and cause a fire." Ain't that the truth: ask Boeing about the batteries in the B787 Dreamliner.

The ACCC is also concerned about data privacy and, indeed, the amount of data collected by on-line platforms and what they do with it. "A significant part of [the value of e.g. Google and Facebook to advertisers], of course, is the depth and breadth of consumer insights that digital platforms can generate from the data they access or control. Consumers have reason to be concerned. The consequences of providing their personal information on-line has the potential to extend beyond targeted advertising and carefully curated content to include increased dangers from invasions of privacy, misinformation and on-line fraud, as well as the potential for discriminatory conduct.
Our preliminary report in the Digital Platforms Inquiry found that there are issues with a lack of transparency and meaningful options in terms of how, and how much, personal data is collected about consumers and how that personal data is used and disclosed. This can prevent consumers making an informed and genuine choice over these important issues."

These are big-sky problems. The ACCC cannot expect to act in isolation: Australia has borders, the internet does not, although Australian courts have, in some cases, sought to impose them.