Phone-in quiz viewers risk rip-off over regulatory loopholes

LATE-NIGHT quiz viewers risk being ripped off by phone-in shows because the technology driving them falls between regulatory cracks, a Dáil Committee has heard.

Opposition TDs railed against Communications Minister Eamon Ryan for not doing enough to close potential loopholes in new legislation governing premium rate phone lines.

This new bill seeks to impose stricter regulations on the operators of these high-priced phone services and the telephone companies who facilitate them.

But Labour Party spokeswoman Liz McManus said Mr Ryan could not oversee phone operators with one regulator (ComReg) and police broadcasters airing the premium line shows with another (Broadcasting Authority).

She pointed to the case of Play TV, which is carried by TV3, and which has been the subject of numerous complaints from quiz hopefuls who rang premium phone lines, were charged for the service but did not get through to the show.

Ms McManus said the legislation did not deal with an ongoing convergence in the media industry which had blurred the lines between broadcasters and communications companies.

“Now you are going to have two regulators looking at the same complaint,” she said.

Ms McManus said she was not casting aspersions on an entire industry but trying to ensure protection from rogue operators.

She said the most practical solution was contained in the report of An Bord Snip Nua, which recommended merging ComReg with the Broadcasting Authority.

Mr Ryan rejected this. He said while it had merits under a unified regulator the smaller broadcasting industry would be in danger of being swamped by the larger communications sector.

Ms McManus said this was hard to believe because Mr Ryan’s department was already able to deal with the complexities of both areas without compromising on either.

Mr Ryan said consumers would have clear avenues to pursue if they had complaints.

In this regard if people have problems with their premium line charges complaints should go to ComReg and if it is related to the content of the programme the Broadcasting Authority will deal with it, he said.

He said broadcasting was a particularly complex area and deserved a watchdog of its own.

The minister also detailed a new amendment that will require companies to refund customers who have been wronged. Companies can also have their licences revoked.

Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney tabled a number of amendments to the bill and said there were developments in technology which would make the distinction between broadcasting and communications more difficult to police.

He criticised the punishment measures in the legislation for companies who deliberately overcharge.

The minister took on board a number of proposed amendments tabled by Ms McManus and Mr Coveney and said he would look into potential changes when the bill reaches its final stage.

Mr Ryan also committed to bringing forward firm legal advice from the Attorney General on the distinction between broadcasters and premium line providers.

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