ACCC readies phone-tapping powers

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ACCC readies phone-tapping powers

Harsher anti-cartel laws from July 24.

Australia's competition watchdog will soon be given powers to tap Australians' phones.

The phone-tapping exemption from the Telecommunications Act (Interception) that usually reserves such rights to police and security agencies comes into force at the end of next week.

It allows watchdog the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission to intercept telecommunications where it suspects an organisation is involved in anti-competitive conduct defined as a cartel.

The commission defines a cartel offence as conduct that "involves agreements between competitors to fix prices, restrict outputs, allocate customers or rig bids".

Telephone interception has not previously been available in relation to trade practices matters.

Under the new powers, the ACCC can authorise a telephone interception agency such as the Australian Federal Police to tap phones on the competition watchdog's behalf as part of a joint investigation.

The exemption was introduced in a memorandum of understanding between the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and the regulator following the passing of the Trade Practices Amendment (Cartel Conduct and Other Measures) Act  last month.

Under the new legislation, involvement in a cartel can lead to criminal conviction and imprisonment for up to 10 years.

The watchdog was granted the authority to conduct search warrants under the new legislation.

"Individuals who choose to continue to engage in serious cartel conduct after July 24 run the risk of being caught under the new laws and the prospect of significant gaol time," said commission chairman Graeme Samuel.

"The new investigative tools and significant penalties for cartel conduct point to one conclusion - there has never been a better time to stop cartel conduct."

More information on the cartel laws is here.

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