Privacy push a response to public demand

PRIVACY is looming as a major issue for business of the same magnitude as Y2K and the GST. And, just as with those two crises, the message is being broadcast that privacy will build better businesses.

A breakfast for 190 organised by Business News last week – which featured addresses by Federal Attorney General Daryl Williams, Deacons Lawyers partner Mark Fitzgerald, and BDO managing partner and Institute of Chartered Accountants national deputy president Geoff Brayshaw – was told that compliance with the Privacy Act was good for business.

The Privacy Act comes into effect on December 21 and small businesses turning over less than $3 million a year will be exempted in most cases.

And, unless they are involved in the health industry, small businesses drawn into the Privacy Act, such as those with a subsidiary turning over more than $3 million or working on a Federal Government contract, have until December 21 2002 to comply.

Those businesses exempted from the Act can “opt in” to the privacy system, which means they will have to meet the 10 National Privacy Principles.

If they prove they can meet the principles, they will be awarded the National Privacy Seal.

To prepare for the arrival of Y2K businesses were forced to upgrade their computer systems to beat the threat posed by the bug.

With GST, small businesses were told they would become better because the Business Activity Statement would force them to look at their accounts more often.

Small Business and Enterprise Association executive director Philip Achurch said that, while privacy could bring small businesses a marketing advantage, he does not believe many businesses will opt into the new privacy regime.

“With the Y2K I always said it was much ado about nothing, but from a straight business efficiency point of view, upgrading computer systems was a good thing,” he said.

“The GST is making some small businesses operate more efficiently.”

Mr Brayshaw said privacy had to be taken on board because the public wanted it.

“This is government reflecting public sentiment,” Mr Brayshaw said.

“It’s really a question of whether the Government has struck the right balance with legislation and it worries me that the Privacy Commissioner’s guidelines are so detailed.”

After his address to the breakfast, Mr Brayshaw said there was a grain of truth in the claims that both Y2K and the GST had made businesses better.

“Y2K forced people to do something about their computer systems and they benefited from it,” he said.

“The BAS has given businesses the impetus to produce better accounting information, but a lot of the benefits have been hidden behind the other statistical information the Australian Tax Office is trying to collect from the form.”

Shorter Group partner Debra Shorter said she found it hard to understand how a business could gain a marketing advantage by taking on the privacy principles.

“In our business we already have the option of providing clients with a confidentiality agreement,” she said.

“This is just good business practice that already exists with businesses that operate ethically.

“Clients are hardly likely to work with a business that has poor practices in this area.”

Curtin University’s Small Business Unit executive director Tim Atherton believes those businesses operating well will be able to take any Privacy Act obligations in their stride.

“It’s usually the businesses that are struggling to make a living that get hit hardest by these sort of things,” Mr Atherton said.“It becomes another burden that has a disproportionate effect on the business.”

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