ETag fiasco shows brainless policy

By Liu Ching-yi 劉靜怡  / 

Tue, Mar 18, 2014 - Page 8

The government has pledged to build an “e-government” for years. It often uses international rankings as evidence of its accomplishments. However, the chaos with the new household registration system and the eTag toll system has burst the “boast” bubble. The debacles have also exposed flaws in the nation’s information policy. Beyond hardware and software, the biggest problem lies in the government’s bidding, outsourcing and monitoring processes, and whether it is willing to perform its duties according to the law and to protect people’s rights.

During the previous legislative session, a resolution from Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators was passed demanding that the Ministry of Transportation and Communications amend the guidelines for protecting personal user data in the freeway electronic toll collection (ETC) system, which came into effect in August last year.

It also demanded that Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co (FETC) not use such personal data for commercial purposes prior to the amendment, and said that it would freeze the ministry’s budget unless the FETC handled regular and late payments of both eTag and non-eTag users without service charges until it expanded the number of direct service points to at least 120 nationwide.

However, judging from the guidelines on the Web site of the National Freeway Bureau, no amendment has been made. Instead, the site lists advertisements for credit cards that make eTag payments automatically. Surely, this constitutes commercial use of the personal data of eTag users.

How is the ministry implementing the legislature’s resolution? Was the proposal by KMT lawmakers meant to temporarily assuage public anger?

Approved by the ministry and backed by the bureau, the FETC’s service contract is a typical contract that is obviously unfair to most drivers, who are the consumers in this case.

For example, the bureau said that the contract would come into effect automatically once the FETC announced it publicly, regardless of whether auto dealers, who are controlled by the ministry, had arbitrarily installed eTags for drivers and whether vehicle owners had read the contract. This is an absurd interpretation of the law.

In addition, the contract allows the company to use personal data provided by drivers, as well as all user-generated information, for “traffic and other purposes.”

It appears that the government is creating a market monopoly for a single operator by giving that firm special privileges and forcing people to sign a standardized contract for a single-payment solution with the company and allowing the company to use personal data for many other value-added purposes — all while claiming that it is promoting information technology.

Meanwhile, Article 15 of the guidelines states that vehicle owners have the right to check whether FETC has their personal information and to read it, and Article 16 states that drivers have the right to check the “on-board units” in their cars, prepaid eTag accounts, ETC payment card transaction records and other related information.

That being so, why are there so many news reports about how difficult it is for drivers to check this information?

Since the government is so reluctant to fulfill its contractual obligations toward consumers, has the government fulfilled its duties to monitor the company?

The ETC service contract ignores the rights of vehicle owners and there is no effective channel for complaints, not to mention that the government is shirking its responsibility to protect non-eTag users when their rights are violated. As the government insists that it must not intervene in the contractual disputes between FETC and consumers, it appears as if the government is cooperating with the company to block consumer complaints.

Perhaps the company is trying to force drivers to accept the situation by filing lawsuits at the Taipei District Court against them once overdue payments exceed the threshold for “small claims proceedings,” as stipulated in Article 23 of the contract.

Some non-eTag users have to pay a service charge of NT$5 for a NT$4 bill, which shows that the government is discriminating against non-eTag users by inappropriately luring them to install eTags in violation of the principle of equality.

By passing the buck like this, the government has proven that its information policy is not only brainless, but also heartless as it becomes the butt of information-policy jokes. The only thing that cannot be predicted is what the next joke created by this opaque government-business cooperation will be.

Liu Ching-yi is a professor in the Graduate Institute of National Development at National Taiwan University.

Translated by Eddy Chang