Bell ad program unresolved despite changing tune on consumer consent

The issue of Bell Canada tracking Internet use in order to deliver targeted online advertising remains unresolved even though the company has accepted a privacy commissioner’s recommendation that it first seek customer consent.

“I would just caution that the real issue is still in front of the CRTC, which is whether they are allowed to do this at all,” said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Calling the practice an abuse of privacy, the consumer group has filed a complaint with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, arguing Bell has gone beyond its role as a provider of telecom services.

Lawson says telecom legislation prohibits Bell from using confidential information to support a new business that secures revenues from selling to advertisers the interest profiles of its customers.

Bell tracks only customer Internet use by cellphone clients at present, but has indicated it would extend that to landlines and to TV viewing habits, having argued for more than a year that customers could opt out if they so wished.

However, the telecommunications giant seemingly made an about-face Tuesday just hours after the privacy commissioner issued a report urging a change in approach.

“Bell will abide by the privacy commission’s decision, including the opt-in approach,” Bell said in an email. “We’re dedicated to protecting customer privacy and thank the commission for clarifying the rules.”

The company didn’t issue a press release and the privacy commission said it hasn’t been notified of any change in the company’s position.

“We will be meeting with Bell tomorrow and will wait to hear directly from the company before commenting on whether the company is indeed reversing its position,” a commission spokeswoman said.

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien had urged Bell to review its approach after releasing the results of an investigation prompted by an “unprecedented” 170 privacy complaints.

It determined Bell shouldn’t assume that customers are consenting to have vast amounts of their personal information tracked.

“We think that the use of personal information by Bell to define customer profiles, which are then used for advertisement, is a legitimate business use but is one where we conclude that customers need to consent to explicitly,” he said in an interview.

Therrien said Bell is free to seek customer consent by offering benefits or incentives.

He said the commission is satisfied that Bell is taking the appropriate measures to ensure that personal information and sensitive information will not be disclosed to advertisers. Bell is only disclosing profiles of interests based in part on viewing histories of consumers on the Internet.

And categories predetermined to be sensitive or likely to be of interest to minors, such as adult content, are discarded.

While the recommendations only affect Bell’s advertising program, he said it is a lesson for other companies that might want to adopt a similar program.

Bell has said customers supported its approach of putting the onus on them to opt out of the program.

However, an expert hired by the commissioner found the survey used by Bell to gauge customer views was complex and couldn’t be scientifically supported. Yet it also found that more than one third of its customers — some two million people — were not comfortable with Bell’s approach.

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