A victory against Bell’s use of customer information

Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa, has criticized Bell Mobility’s Relevant Ads Program (RAP), saying it “falls short on privacy.” His main concern is that it is opt-out, but he also points out some of the other problems of a telecom provider mining and selling user data. Much is coming to light about the extent of Bell’s user data collection since the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC) filed a complaint at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC).

PIAC’s Executive Director argued that “Bell has overstepped its role as a neutral provider of telecommunications services.” The President of the CAC pointed out that “Bell is trying to ‘double-dip’ by taking your subscription fees and then selling information based on your use of the services you just paid for.”

The application to the CRTC has produced some wins. Before, opting out of the program simply meant that targeted ads wouldn’t be shown to you. You weren’t opting out of your information being used. Now things are different. In Bell’s response to the PIAC’s filing, they promise (paragraph 41):

Bell has changed its opt-out process so that an opt-out will terminate all use of personal information for the RAP and the deletion of any browsing, interest and category information from existing profiles. This change was made retroactive to cover anyone who chose to opt-out since the initiation of the RAP.

To parse this a bit: this says just the CATEGORIES are what is being deleted, not the actual browsing history. In other words, Bell is still collecting information on browsing habits, it is just not categorizing those habits for use in ad targeting. I have emailed Bell’ Privacy Ombudsman for clarification. It remains an opt-out system, as criticized by Michael Geist above, but this is still a positive development: the flawed opt-out system has become somewhat more robust.

In any case, this change is an example of consumer power. Last year Shaw changed it’s process for storing service calls in response to my PIPEDA request. Now, the PIPEDA request I made revealing Bell’s 56 categories for ad targeting has contributed to reform at Bell. Luckily, thanks to a concerned citizen who found my post from last year, the results of my PIPEDA request were submitted as part of the PIAC filing. The process has been long and very involved, and I would like to publicly thank that concerned citizen for their hard work. I have not had any direct contact with PIAC or the CAC. Everything was mediated by this private citizen, who says:

As to why I got involved? The previous Privacy Commissioner of Canada stated something along the lines of, if you don’t put up a fight for your privacy, privacy lost will not be regained. Once it’s gone you are not getting it back … I’m not about to let corporate interests and shareholder-value tell me what privacy rights I have, so it was time to fight and speak up. PIAC was the force that started it, and I jumped in as the regular Joe that I am.

The fight isn’t over. More and more information is coming to light about how our telecoms treat their customers. Consumer organizations like PIAC know how to take action, but they need data. Thus, I encourage everyone to take five minutes and send off the form letters Chris Parsons prepared in his post to shed light on what our telecoms are doing, and give them the ammunition they need to effect change.

Also, if you are a Bell Mobility customer, opt-out of the RAP program here.

Author: Chad Kohalyk

Bellatrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes. http://chadkohalyk.com

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