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Government threatens to legislate if voluntary consumer data access standards are not adhered to by mobile, energy and financial services firms

Financial services, mobile telecoms and energy companies will be compelled by law to provide consumers with data they hold about their transactions or consumption in an "electronic, machine readable" format, upon request, if they do not do so voluntarily, the Government has said.20 Nov 2012

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said it plans to create a backstop power to enable it to introduce new regulations which would require the companies in those three "core" sectors to adhere to the 'midata' programme, and said that businesses in other sectors could also be subject to the legislation if it later decides it is "appropriate to regulate". It added that it wanted to "focus the power on markets with certain features leading to clear consumer detriment."

BIS said, though, that firms involved with energy supply, in the mobile phone sector and those that provide current accounts and credit cards would be given a chance to conform to the existing 'midata' standards first before it decides whether consumer access to the "historic" transaction or consumption data should be legislated for.

BIS said that the UK's data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), would be given the "lead role in enforcing any duties that are introduced".

"It is the Government’s view that where businesses choose to collect information about individual consumer’s transaction history which can be linked to that consumer, that individual should be able to access their own transaction data in a portable electronic format," BIS said in its response (32-page / 229KB PDF) to the consultation it held on the issue earlier this year. "This can help build the foundation of a competitive digital economy which will build trust among consumers, promote competition between firms and create an opportunity for innovation - creating benefits for consumers and creating value for the economy."

"The Government is committed to continuing the work of the voluntary midata programme and expects to see progress accelerate, with more data being made available to customers electronically in the coming months," it added. "If, however, progress does not accelerate sufficiently, subject to Parliamentary agreement, the Government expects to bring forward regulations in reliance on the power, though no earlier than autumn 2013."

Last year BIS announced that 19 major brands, including Google, Royal Bank of Scotland, British Gas and Visa, had all signed up to the voluntary 'midata' scheme. The scheme requires those signed up to provide consumers with "increasing access to their personal data in a portable, electronic format," the Department said at the time.

Organisations involved in the scheme should be guided by certain 'consumer data' principles when making personal data available to individuals, BIS said at the time. The principles include making the data available in "an open standard format" that is "reusable" and "machine-readable" in as standard form as is possible across sectors and ensuring that consumers can "access, retrieve and store their data securely".

Consumers should also be able to access the information quickly when requested, the information should be "actionable and useful" to the individuals and should enable them to "analyse, manipulate, integrate and share" the information "as they see fit - including participating in collaborative or group purchasing," it added.

Currently individuals have the right to request that organisations grant them access to the personal data they store about them under the Data Protection Act. However, organisations are only obliged to provide the individuals with the information in "an intelligible form". However, BIS said that consumers would benefit from having increased access rights under the 'midata' regime.

"Many businesses reap huge commercial benefits from the information they gather from consumers’ daily spending patterns," Employment and Consumer Affairs Minister Jo Swinson said in a statement. "Why shouldn’t consumers also benefit from this by having access to their own data to enable them to make better choices?  It’s great when your energy provider tells you how much gas or electricity you’re using at any point in the year or when phone companies tell you which one of their tariffs suits you best. But it’s even better when consumers can use that information to get better value for money deals or adjust their lifestyles."

BIS said that the data businesses would have to hand over under its plans is "factual information". This would include "what a consumer bought, where they bought it, [and] how much they paid for it", but would not include "any subsequent analysis that the data holder has undertaken on the information, for example, analysis to help segment consumers by purchasing behaviour."

BIS said that it had set up working groups to assess, among other things, whether there could be a common standard businesses could adhere to for providing data under the midata regime. In addition, the working groups are looking at privacy implications such as how businesses might be able to verify that consumers have given permission to third parties that gives them the right to access their information.

"The Government is conscious of and recognises the importance of security and privacy of any data released through midata," BIS said. "Government will work with business and consumer groups as part of the midata voluntary programme, to identify the range of risks posed by greater availability and use of electronic personal transactional data. Where current data protection or other consumer legislation does not fully address the risks identified we will develop solutions to ensure that data is only released with the appropriate safeguards."

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