Bell kills Relevant Ads Program over privacy concerns

Bell has completed a total climb down on a controversial advertising program that raised the ire of privacy advocates and the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and is currently being examined by the Candian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

An update released Monday by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada indicated that Bell has decided to withdraw its Relevant Ads Program, which involved tracking the Internet browsing habits and app usage of customers, as well as TV viewing and calling patterns, and combining that with demographic and account data to allow third parties to pay Bell to deliver highly targeted ads to Bell customers.

“Bell advised us that it has decided to withdraw its Relevant Ads Program and that it will delete all existing customer profiles related to the program. Furthermore, Bell has said that if it launches a similar program in the future, it would do so using express opt-in consent,” said the OPC statement. “We appreciate Bell’s cooperation throughout the course of our investigation and we respect Bell’s decision to terminate the program.”

As Bell has withdrawn the program, the OPC said it now considers the matter closed. If Bell had not agreed to accept the OPC’s recommendations, it could have taken the matter to Federal Court.

UPDATE: A Bell spokesperson told ITBusiness.ca late Monday that Bell will be reintroducing the Relevant Advertising Program in a way that addresses the concerns raised by the OPC, including the opt-in process.

“Last week Bell announced we agreed with the privacy commission’s findings and appreciated the clarity on what is a relatively new marketing segment. We’ll be re-introducing the program based on the opt-in approach as noted earlier,” said Bell’s Jacqueline Michelis.

When the OPC released its report on April 7, Bell had agreed to comply with all OPC recommendations regarding the Relevant Ads program but one – that Bell customers proactively opt-in to the program and that, without their consent, their data not be used as part of the program.

“Bell’s ad program involves the use of vast amounts of its customers’ personal information, some of it highly sensitive,” said privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien, in a statement. “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.”

Initially, Bell contended that providing an ability for customers to opt out of the program was sufficient. However, by midday on April 7 Bell had released a statement promising to abide by the opt-in recommendation as well.

“Bell will abide by the privacy commission’s [sic] decision including the opt-in approach. We’re dedicated to protecting customer privacy and thank the commission for clarifying the rules,” said Bell spokesperson Jason Laszlo in a statement provided to ITBusiness.ca.

In its statement Monday, the OPC indicated it accepted that Bell’s objective of maximizing advertising revenue while improving the online experience of customers was a legitimate business objective.

“We also accepted that Bell’s targeted advertising initiative could be effective in achieving those objectives,” said the OPC. “Our recommendation to Bell was that it use opt-in consent in its targeted advertising program. We felt that the privacy implications of the initiative were significant enough to require opt-in consent from customers.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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