Bell Canada has tweaked its policy on tracking its cellphone customers' Internet browsing habits, but public interest groups say the change does not go far enough.
Bell said in a regulatory filing that when its mobile customers opt out of its "relevant ads program," the company no longer keeps track of their browsing activity for marketing purposes.
Previously, users who opted out of the program would no longer see ads aimed at their specific interests, but Bell continued to track what they viewed on the Internet.
The company disclosed the change in a filing related to a complaint the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Consumers' Association of Canada (PIAC-CAC) lodged with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission more than a year ago.
(Bell is owned by BCE Inc., which also owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)
The public interest groups objected to Bell's move in November, 2013, to begin using customer browsing information to deliver third-party advertising targeted at users' interests.
The commission published Bell's responses to numerous requests for more information in January and both Bell and PIAC-CAC filed further written arguments over the past three weeks.
Bell says in CRTC filings that it tracks browsing activity on mobile devices and filters the traffic into "categories" – such as sports, gardening or cars – allowing it to later show related ads to users that fit those categories.
But the company insists the program does not pass along confidential personal information about its users to advertisers, noting "the advertiser receives only high-level statistics on the number of times their ad was served to the group that fits the characteristics they selected."
As of October, 113,000 Bell customers asked to opt out of the program, which only tracks the company's wireless customers, not its Internet or television subscribers.
Bell said in a submission published Thursday that it used to continue to categorize browsing activity even after users opted out, the rationale being if they opted back in, the company would have "an accurate reflection of an individual's interests."
Now, it says, it has "changed its opt-out process so that an opt-out will terminate all use of personal information for the RAP [relevant ads program] and the deletion of any browsing, interest and category information from existing profiles."
Bell said the change was made retroactive to cover anyone who had opted out since the beginning of the program.
"We modified the opt-out process in response to feedback," Bell spokesman Mark Langton said Tuesday. "We've now processed more than 100,000 customer opt-out requests, underlining the process works and customers understand their choices."
David Fewer, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, said the program should not use an opt-out standard at all, noting, "This kind of personal information collection and sharing is something that you need to opt into."
Geoff White, external counsel to PIAC, said Bell's move to stop tracking users after they opt out of the relevant ad program "sounds like a step in the right direction," but added, "At the very minimum, PIAC-CAC thinks this should be done on an opt-in basis, so customers of Bell can exercise actual choice."
He said there is a distinction between Internet companies that offer free e-mail or social media platforms on the one hand, and telecom providers on the other, when it comes to using information gleaned from users to sell advertising.
"The issue is these aren't free services that engage in some sort of tradeoff with the user who says, 'Okay, I'm using Google or I'm using Facebook but I know they're up to something in exchange for this,'" Mr. White said Tuesday. "With the telecom providers, you're paying them money, and you're paying for a secure connection – they're not supposed to be listening into your conversation or looking at your data in terms of how you're using this service."
The Privacy Commissioner of Canada also initiated an investigation into the practice when Bell first launched the tracking program. In its annual report to Parliament last year, the privacy watchdog said that out of a total of 426 complaints about private-sector privacy issues it received in 2013, 166 were about the Bell program.
"We are in the final stages of our investigation," spokeswoman Valerie Lawton said in an e-mail Tuesday. "Once complete, the commissioner will make a determination as to whether it is in the public interest to make the investigation findings public."