Getting its priorities straight - ACCC's 2019 product safety priorities

By Miriam Stiel
Consumer law Intellectual Property Patents & Trade Marks

In brief 3 min read

Just in time for World Consumer Rights Day on 15 March 2019, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) formally announced its 2019 Product Safety Priorities. Partner Miriam Stiel and Senior Associate Julia Taylor explain which issues remain in the hot seat, and what's new on the agenda.

Safety in a connected world

Last year, the ACCC prioritised the safety of products sold through online marketplaces, including where the goods are sourced from outside Australia. This year, the impact of the 'Internet of things' on safety issues for Australian consumers has been added to the ACCC's agenda. Most consumers are now acutely aware of the concerns surrounding privacy and data leaks arising from the connected devices that permeate Australian households, but not everyone recognises the associated safety risks. In a speech to the National Consumer Congress on 14 March 2019, Chairman Rod Sims listed software updates, lapses in connectivity, malware and third party hacking as a few examples of the issues that could lead to malfunction and injury. The ACCC proposes to tackle this issue through a public awareness campaign, and is considering whether legal reform is necessary to anticipate future safety risks posed by interconnected devices. As always, making sure the law keeps up with the rapid pace of technological development will be a tough problem to tackle. We expect this priority area will remain on the ACCC's agenda for some time.

General safety provision

The introduction of a general safety provision, requiring all products supplied in Australia to be 'safe', has been a hot topic for some time now. It was first considered in 2004, and has periodically been raised as a possibility since. Speaking to the National Consumer Congress, Mr Sims made it clear the ACCC considers the sale of unsafe goods should be made illegal. The ACCC's view appears to be that maintaining mandatory safety standards and bans, while still an important factor, is not enough to protect consumers from unsafe goods, and proactive protections need to be enacted.

There are a few difficulties with introducing a general safety provision. The first question is whether the obligation should be positive – 'you must only supply safe products', or negative – 'you must not supply unsafe products'. Another difficult area will be how 'safe' or 'unsafe' are defined. Finally, consideration will need to be given to whether any safe harbour defences, such as compliance with mandatory, voluntary or industry standards, will be built into the law. The ACCC intends to work with Consumer Affairs Australia New Zealand in considering a general safety provision.

Other continuing concerns

Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, large scale product safety issues cannot be resolved within a year. This year's list of priority areas includes several of the key issues that were a focus for the ACCC in 2018. It remains concerned about the Takata airbag recall (on which the ACCC spent the most time of any issue last year), improving quad bike safety and minimising the risks of injury to young children swallowing button batteries. Ensuring the safety of infants remains a priority, although the focus has shifted somewhat from baby walkers and toppling furniture (2018 priorities) to unsafe sleeping products. The ACCC will, of course, continue to monitor and identify other safety hazards, including through information collected from consumer reports, mandatory reports and recalls lodged by suppliers, and discussions with other regulators, as well as through its national and international networks.