News last week of the $1.1 million fine levied by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) against a Quebec company for violations of the Canadian anti-spam law (CASL) has many in the marketing community wondering: could we be next?

Compu-Finder was hit with the first fine under CASL for what the CRTC described as four violations of the act, including sending commercial emails without consent and messages in which the unsubscribe function did not work properly. The emails related to training courses for businesses on topics such as management, social media and professional development. Compu-Finder has 30 days from the date of notice to either submit written representations or pay the penalty.

According to the CRTC, Compu-Finder appears to have been a frequent offender – 26 per cent of complaints made to its Spam Reporting Centre for this industry segment related to Compu-Finder.

“Despite the CRTC’s efforts, Compu-Finder flagrantly violated the basic principles of the law by continuing to send unsolicited commercial electronic messages after the law came into force to email addresses it found by scouring web sites,” said Manon Bombardier, chief compliance and enforcement officer for the CRTC, in a statement. “My goal is to encourage a change of behaviour on the part of Compu-Finder such that it adapts its business practices to the modern reality of electronic commerce and the requirements of the anti-spam law.”

It remains to be seen if Compu-Finder will get the message; a spokesperson was unavailable for comment. It appears though that the rest of the country is standing up and taking notice, which may have been the CRTC’s goal with such a heavy fine as the first out of the gate.

It certainly took Robert Burko by surprise. Burko, the president of Toronto-based marketing firm Elite Email and an ITBusiness.ca community blogger, said he figured they’d fire a few warning shots before bringing out the big guns. It appears to him, though, that Compu-Finder was a particularly egregious offender that ignored CRTC requests to follow the rules.

“They probably brought this on themselves. It seems they didn’t even try to comply with the law,” said Burko. “If it’s going to be a law that’s going to have any teeth and be effective we needed some evidence it’s going to be taken seriously. Now we know it will be. Before it was an abstract thing. Now that we know they’ll actually pursue it, it raises the stakes.”

While the companies that took immediate action on CASL compliance will be breathing a sigh of relief, Burko said those that were taking a wait and see approach will now likely wise up and follow the regulations to a tee. As for Compu-Finder, he thinks they’re an outlier and aren’t indicative of most e-mail marketers in Canada.

“On the whole, legitimate businesses weren’t spamming their customers in the first place,” said Burko. “Spamming has never been good business. They have a brand worth protecting.”

Another ITBusiness.ca community blogger, Aluvion Law founder Monica Goyal, also admitted surprise at the heavy dollar amount for the first fine under CASL. She said there was some uncertainty in the legal community around CASL because of the vagueness of the regulations and the broadness of some of the provisions. According to the coverage though, she said it would appear the CRTC has strong grounds against Compu-Find.

“The law is meant to stop spammers and spamming, and this seems to be a good application of the law,” said Goyal.

What’s unclear though is how the fine was arrived at – the act says it’s based on the number of complaints, but a specific figure for complaints has not been provided. As for legitimate businesses, she said as long as they’re making a good-faith effort at CASL compliance they probably don’t need to worry about a heavy fine on the level of that against Compu-Finder.

“It seems people had even tried to call (Compufinder to unsubscribe) but once you’re on their list they just kept sending,” said Goyal. “This is different from a lot of business sending emails about promotions on a quarterly basis and have the ability to unsubscribe and have made legitimate efforts to have people’s consent.”

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  • Kelley

    Awesome, it’s long overdue that these offenders paid the price for ignoring rules and regulations.

  • Kawlinz

    I like how electronic trash gets a $1.1 million price tag but throwing sludge into the ocean is no where near that much. It’s another money grab, plain and simple.

  • Joe

    I’m all for this. Especially because I work in the web marketing industry, and these clowns give us a bad rep.

    What I would like to know is, how are there fines for sending me digital junk mail, but people/companies can pay Canada Post to litter my front step with their ‘unaddressed admail’ (that I mostly just toss into the recycle bin without even looking at)?

  • David

    People could avoid most of the hassle by simply following the alternatives that already exist. Yes digital spam may be a newer regulatory issue but this problem has been dealt with for years. Most industry associations have had do not contact lists that are mandatory for members to follow but citizens didn’t want to take the time to put themselves on those lists.
    I see this going the same way. Most decent companies do not want to tarnish themselves but there will always be those that just don’t care. Take the time to remove yourself from the lists you can, set your communication settings appropriately and you remove most of it right off the bat.

  • Jack

    http://goo.gl/4gLgPM Uhh Jeff, there was no mystery as to the determination of the fine. The penalties for the legislation are clearly set out as seen in this link. It is astounding that for someone who writes for Canadian technology media, you would have not been aware of the CASL.

    • As I wrote, it was unclear how the fine in this specific case was arrived at as fines are based on the number of complaints but in this case the CRTC did not make clear how many complaints were received and deemed valid in this case. And it’s lawyers that have studied the legislation that have raised concerns about ambiguity in some of the provisions.