Bell Canada pulls U-turn on super-invasive web-stalking operation

Privacy commissioner: You WILL let your customers opt out

Following the Canadian Privacy Commissioner's investigation into "an unprecedented number of complaints" regarding Bell Canada, the telecommuncations giant is suddenly back-pedalling on its customer tracking policy.

A report from the Canadian Privacy Commissioner's Office (OPC) has urged telecommunications companies to adopt "opt-in" consent when it comes to building detailed consumer profiles to facilitate behaviourally targeted advertising.

The Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, opened his investigation into Bell Canada after having received "an unprecedented" 170 complaints.

The report, released on Tuesday, follows a prolonged debate during which Bell continued to assert that customers can end such tracking by simply opting out.

In another intervention into its activities earlier this year, telecoms regulator CRTC gave a Net Neutrality ruled that Bell must stop offering an app that allowed users to watch television footage from channels owned or licensed by Bell itself, without such viewing counting against a data cap.

Bell's "Relevant Advertising Program" was the activity in which data about customers' browsing habits, app usage, TV viewing and calling patterns was combined with previously collected demographic and account data to create "highly detailed profiles that enable third parties to deliver targeted ads to Bell’s customers for a fee."

The commissioner found that even when it did receive a customer's opt-out request, Bell would actually just cease serving the customer "relevant ads" but continued to track them, "in case the customer were to change his or her mind in the future, and opt back in to the program."

"Bell’s ad program involves the use of vast amounts of its customers’ personal information, some of it highly sensitive," Therrien said. "Bell should not simply assume that, unless they proactively speak up to the contrary, customers are consenting to have their personal information used in this new way."

In a canned statement published alongside the report, the OPC stated "We remain hopeful that Bell will reconsider its position but are prepared to address this unresolved issue in accordance with our authorities under [the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)], which could involve taking the matter to the Federal Court."

Following this threat, the telecommunications company is now back-pedalling and in an email to The Register stated: "Bell will abide by the privacy commission’s decision including the opt-in approach."

The Bell statement adds "We’re dedicated to protecting customer privacy and thank the commission for clarifying the rules. These are rules that must apply not only to Canadian companies but to international companies operating here, like Facebook and Google, to ensure a fair and competitive marketplace." ®

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