Canada’s telecom regulator CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) announced on Tuesday that it will not investigate BCE Inc. (Bell Canada Enterprises) for allegedly structuring its targeted online advertising program called ‘Relevant Ads’, in a way that puts the onus on users to manually opt out of having their online activities tracked and sold to marketers. The established, accepted and legitimate practice according to regulations in most countries is to make such programs opt-in, whereby users need to manually and deliberately give consent to having their online activities tracked for marketing and/or other purposes. The telecom regulator says that it is dismissing the complaint against Bell as the carrier has already shut down its controversial program following a recommendation from the OPC (Office of the Privacy Commissioner).
The OPC had, in April this year, asked Bell to withdraw the controversial ‘Relevant Ads’ program and instead replace it with the opt-in practice, whereby users will be in charge on whether carriers and other third parties may or may not track their browsing habits. The complaint against Bell was originally filed in January last year by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC), and even after Bell had closed down its controversial tracking program, the two consumer rights organizations insisted that the regulator act against the carrier as “there is a bigger issue to be resolved … about the lawfulness under telecom law in the first place of this sort of profiling”. The two also wanted the CRTC to broaden its investigation to bring within its purview other telecom service providers, on their methods and ways of collecting data on their customers, which they believe to be not just unethical, but also unlawful.
As for the statement issued by the CRTC as part of its two page ruling, the regulator said that it believes the PIAC – CAC has been unable to provide enough evidence against other carriers to substantiate the claims, and summarily rejected their plea for a initiating a broader investigation. The CRTC noted, “consistent with the OPC’s conclusions with respect to the Relevant Ads program, any communications service provider that charges for the provision of services will obtain express, opt-in consent from a customer before using that customer’s data for the purposes of targeted advertising. For that consent to be meaningful, it will need to be supported by a detailed explanation that allows the customer to clearly understand the full breadth of the actual information that a company might use to target them for advertising purposes”.
The regulator went on to say that, “Privacy remains a significant concern for Canadians, especially as telecommunications service providers and broadcasting distribution undertakings introduce new programs that use customer data”. That being the case, the CRTC assured that it would “continue to actively monitor privacy-related issues as they emerge”.