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CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais delivers a statement in Gatineau, Que., Tuesday, May 5, 2015.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada's anti-spam law is here to stay, and marketers who work with regulators to abide by it will be far less likely to incur expensive penalties and be the subject of embarrassing news alerts.

That's the message that Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission chairman Jean-Pierre Blais gave to an audience of marketers at an event in Toronto Tuesday morning.

Speaking to members of the Canadian Marketing Association, Mr. Blais addressed the delicate balance that advertisers need to consider when communicating with people on the devices that have become such an important part of their lives.

"We Canadians consider our smartphones to be private spaces – like our homes, like our very selves," Mr. Blais said. "And just as we don't like it when strangers intrude on our personal spaces or show up on our doorsteps, we don't like it when unwanted messages and annoying calls enter the private spaces of our smartphones."

Some in the marketing community have questioned the value of the anti-spam legislation, saying that it imposes a major burden on legitimate companies – and sometimes targets established businesses with fines – rather than most often targeting the worst of the worst spammers.

"Those who feel I'm your enemy are mistaken," Mr. Blais said. "We don't go out looking for dragons to slay. We much prefer helping marketers comply with the law than enforcing it after they've broken it."

The law, which came into effect in June of 2014, requires that businesses have to have explicit consent from consumers in order to send them electronic messages for marketing purposes – and must provide a clear opt-out tool for those who decide they no longer want to receive those messages. The CRTC oversees the law, and penalties for violating it range from $1-million for individuals and up to $10-million for businesses operating in Canada. (Fundraising for registered charities and political fundraisers are exempt.)

In January of 2015, a new provision of the law came into effect that also aims to prevent "malware," or malicious software, installed on people's computers or other devices without their knowledge.

That newer provision means that for marketers who use apps to advertise (to manage their loyalty programs, for example), they are compliant as long as customers choose to install those apps or programs, and as long as they are not infected with malware. But apps or programs that take actions automatically on a person's device to install programs or collect personal information, require consent in order to do so.

There is another provision of the legislation still to come: starting in July of 2017, individuals and organizations will be able to take people or organizations to court if they have violated the law, and to seek damages.

"I can understand why people would be nervous" about this, Mr. Blais said on Tuesday, adding that working with the CRTC to ensure regulation is a good way to protect against such actions. "Once there's a private right of action, I won't be able to help you … you're on your own. Good luck with that. All the more reason to get into compliance as much as you can with us, because it will diminish the risk."

Mr. Blais acknowledged that many marketing messages sent electronically have legitimate purposes.

"There are trusted brands out there … I actually want them to tell me [as a consumer] when they've got specials, as long as there is that trusted relationship," he said.

However, he delivered a warning to the audience about ensuring such communications follow the law.

"I know you don't want us to show up at your home or place of business with a warrant. I know you don't want to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties," he said. "I know you don't want your company's name splashed all over the news in such a context."

With the proliferation of technologies to reach people on their personal devices – such as location-based marketing messages, for example – the CRTC is working to determine how the law applies.

"You don't get a pass because you're using technology. But by the same token we don't want to stifle innovation," he said in an interview following the speech. "You may not have been to that store, but it may be owned by a company with whom you do have a relationship, because you've ordered online. So it's very fact-based."

With files from reporter James Bradshaw

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