After a lengthy investigation by Canada's privacy watchdog, Bell Canada says it plans to revamp its targeted online advertising program to give users the chance to consent up front to the company tracking their behaviour.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner said it now considers the matter closed but critics say they remain concerned about a telecom provider using customer information to sell targeted ads.
The program – which tracks cellphone users' browsing habits, app usage and phone calls and charges third parties a fee to deliver ads directed at customers' specific interests – was the subject of numerous complaints when the company announced it in November, 2013, sparking an investigation by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner as well as an application to Canada's telecom regulator.
The OPC released a public report on the program last week, urging the company to address the issue of customer consent after it concluded that Bell should give users the chance to opt in to having their browsing habits tracked rather than automatically tracking them.
The watchdog does not have the power to order private companies to comply with privacy laws, but said it would consider taking the issue to court. Bell said last week it planned to follow the recommendation to use opt-in consent but following a mid-week meeting with the company, the OPC said the matter remained unresolved.
The commission announced Monday that Bell has since advised that it has "decided to withdraw its Relevant Ads Program and that it will delete all existing customer profiles related to the program."
"Furthermore, Bell has said that if it launches a similar program in the future, it would do so using express opt-in consent," the OPC said in an update to its report, noting it considers the matter resolved now.
Bell spokesman Mark Langton said Monday the company does indeed intend to launch a similar program, stating, "We'll be re-introducing the program based on the opt-in approach as noted earlier."
He would not say when the company plans to re-launch the program but noted, "We will comply with all of the privacy commission's directives."
(Bell is owned by BCE Inc., which also owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)
Geoff White, external counsel to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Consumers' Association of Canada (PIAC-CAC), said "there is a bigger issue to be resolved...about the lawfulness under telecom law in the first place of this sort of profiling."
PIAC-CAC filed an application with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) over Bell's ad program in January, 2014. Mr. White said the advocacy organization will continue to seek a ruling from the regulator on "the lawfulness of such tracking."
He disputes the OPC's view that the program's goal of maximizing advertising revenue was a "legitimate business objective," and said the CRTC, which has different powers than the privacy watchdog, "may wish to impose higher privacy standards than those set by PIPEDA (the baseline federal statute)."
Patricia Valladao, a spokeswoman for the CRTC, said the application remains open with the commission, which will "continue with its analysis of the file."
Online "behavioural advertising" is a common practice and often employed by free Internet services such as Facebook and Google. Advertisers are willing to pay more for ads that directly address someone's interests.
The OPC first issued guidelines on the practice in 2011, stating advertisers must make people aware they are being tracked, notify them before collecting personal information and give them the chance to opt-out of being tracked.
But the commission said in its ruling on the Bell program that the usual opt-out standard was insufficient in this case.
"While Internet users might in certain circumstances expect websites to track their Web browsing for the purposes of behavioural targeting in order to generate revenue in support of delivering services that are otherwise free to the user, Bell charges for its services, sometimes hundreds of dollars per month," the report said.
"[Bell] now wishes to earn additional revenue through the monetization of customers' personal information by facilitating the delivery of third-party targeted ads. This is another of the constituent factors that we considered in determining that Bell customers would expect to be given an express, opt-in, choice."
To date, Bell only included wireless customers in the targeted ad program but said previously it planned to eventually expand to television, Internet and home phone customers.