Canada's telecom regulator has dismissed a complaint against BCE Inc.'s targeted online advertising program, which was originally structured so that users had to opt out of having their online behaviour tracked and used for marketing purposes.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued a ruling Tuesday stating that since BCE has withdrawn its "Relevant Ads" program – which delivered third-party ads targeted at mobile users' interests based on their browsing habits – the issues raised in a complaint by a consumer group were moot.
In April, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) revealed the results of a lengthy investigation into the program and recommended that BCE give users the chance to opt in to having their browsing habits tracked rather than automatically tracking them unless they take steps to actively opt out of it. BCE subsequently told the OPC that it was withdrawing the program and deleting existing customer profiles. The company said at the time that it planned to launch a similar program in the future but that it would use an opt-in approach for any such initiative.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Consumers' Association of Canada (PIAC-CAC) had filed a complaint with the CRTC in January, 2014, and said in April that it still wanted the commission to consider the application, arguing that "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 also asked the CRTC to initiate a broader proceeding considering how all telecommunications providers collect, use and disclose customer data.
The CRTC said in its ruling Tuesday that it expects that, "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."
In a two-page written ruling, the commission said PIAC-CAC did not provide evidence that a broader proceeding is "warranted at this time."
"Privacy remains a significant concern for Canadians, especially as [telecommunications service providers] and [broadcasting distribution undertakings] introduce new programs that use customer data," the CRTC said, concluding that it would "continue to actively monitor privacy-related issues as they emerge."
Geoff White, external counsel for PIAC-CAC, said the CRTC ruling was "concerning," noting that "privacy is a major concern to consumers, and telecoms -- and especially wireless providers -- are in a very privileged position to generate very detailed profiles of individuals."
He said the issue raised in the challenge was not simply about "baseline" privacy rules but was specific to telecom legislation and the use of "personal information generated through network usage."
"After a fairly long proceeding, including detailed requests for information to Bell from the Commission, the decision actually avoided the key issue the applicants brought to the Commission for a ruling on, and instead focused on the baseline rules."
Mr. White added he was also concerned that the CRTC concluded the issue was moot after BCE withdrew the program "at what appears to be the eleventh hour," and that the commission declined to use its discretion to "look at the broader issue of telecom privacy."
BCE spokesman Mark Langton declined to comment.