Around 2.3 million small businesses face new obligations around the handling of personal information after the government said it would remove a current exemption from the Privacy Act. The overhaul would also remove a current policy exemption for businesses with turnover under $3 million – exposing around 2.4 million small and medium businesses (SMBs) to burdensome new governance requirements and potential severe penalties for the first time.

With recent figures finding that fewer than half of Australian SMBs see data privacy as a priority – and just 44.4 per cent confident that they have a “well-defined” privacy policy – removal of the exemption will push most of these businesses into uncharted territory.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the government had agreed to most of the 116 proposals contained in a landmark review of the Privacy Act that was released in February.

The new changes include the following:

  • requiring entities to seek informed consent about the handling of personal information
  • establishing stronger protections for children, including a Children’s Online Privacy Code
  • making entities accountable for handling information, and destroying data when no longer needed; and
  • providing greater clarity on how to protect individuals’ privacy, including when handling personal information on behalf of another entity

One of the most sensitive changes the government has agreed to is to end exemptions for small businesses from the Privacy Act. But the government has agreed, subject to further consultation, that small businesses should now come under the act, a reform that could impose costly obligations on those businesses.

It said the exemption was being removed as “the community expects that if they provide their personal information to a small business it will be kept safe and not used in harmful ways”.

But removing the exemption “should not occur until further consultation has been undertaken with small businesses and their representatives on the impact that removing the small business exemption would have”.

“The government will also work with the small business sector, as well as employer and employee representatives, on enhanced privacy protections for private sector employees and for small businesses,” Mr Dreyfus said.

These next steps build on legislation passed last year which significantly increased penalties for repeated or serious privacy breaches and provides the Australian Information Commissioner with greater powers to address privacy breaches.

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