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No Stopping Canadian Telemarketers

CRTC: Your call for a 'Do-not-call' registry is important to us, really.

By Michael Geist 26 Jun 2007 | michaelgeist.ca

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached by e-mail at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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Michael Geist.

[Editor's note: This week The Tyee welcomes a new weekly column by technology and law expert Michael Geist. Geist is the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, and his dispatches regularly appear in the Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen and the BBC. Starting today, you can read them every Tuesday in The Tyee. The original version of this story appeared on his blog]

On December 13, 2004, then industry minister David Emerson tabled legislation to create a Canadian do-not-call registry. Despite overwhelming public support for the ability to opt-out of unwanted telemarketing calls, the registry is still months or possibly years from becoming a reality, a victim of political indifference, special interest opposition, and Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) inaction.

A statutory do-not-call registry enables individuals to place their phone number on a list that, with limited exceptions, marketers are forbidden from calling. Since failure to abide by the wishes of those registered carries significant penalties, do-not-call registries have proven extremely effective. In fact, they are often characterized as win-win propositions since consumers benefit from the power to opt-out of unsolicited telemarketing, and marketers win by eliminating wasted time calling people who do not want to be called.

Massive lists

While Canadian officials dither on the creation of a do-not-call registry, many other countries have successfully implemented them. The U.S. do-not-call registry, established by the Federal Trade Commission in 2003, now includes more than 100 million phone numbers, while the United Kingdom's Telephone Preference Service has more than 10 million phone numbers registered.

More recently, Australia unveiled a government-enforced do-not-call registry that generated more than one million phone numbers in a matter of weeks and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India announced plans for a wireless do-not-call registry earlier this month.

Good intentions

The initial Canadian proposal adopted a strong, pro-consumer approach by featuring a comprehensive ban on marketing to listed phone numbers and leaving it to the CRTC to consider exceptions, to develop an implementation plan, and to levy penalties for non-compliance.

Lobbying pressures substantially altered the bill, however, as members of Parliament introduced new exceptions for charities, political parties, polling companies, newspapers, and businesses with existing business relationships. The rationale for these exceptions ranged from saving Canadian charities (one MP claimed they would be "condemned to die" without the ability to make unsolicited telemarketing calls) to freedom of the press.

The exceptions unquestionably undermine the effectiveness of the do-not-call registry. For example, if you spend one night in a hotel, the hotel chain can call you for the next 18 months, even if you register your phone number on the do-not-call registry -- leaving some to dub what remains as the do-not-hesitate-to call registry.

While the proposed registry is less than ideal (I have been working on an academic project to enable Canadians to opt-out of the excepted groups), it is certainly better than nothing. Once the legislation received royal assent in November 2005, most observers expected the CRTC to meet its statutory obligation and get the do-not-call registry off the ground.

The Commission was never shy about expressing its reluctance to administer a do-not-call registry, however. Charles Dalfen, the former CRTC chair, told Canadian Press in 2004 that a do-not-call registry was a good idea, but that the CRTC "isn't equipped to administer such a list and doesn't have the power to enforce it properly."

Busy signal

Notwithstanding Dalfen's concerns, the legislation required the CRTC to act. It launched a public consultation in February 2006, held hearings in May 2006, and convened working groups to sort out the specific details of the registry. Those groups reported their findings in July 2006, yet nearly one year later, the CRTC has still not even issued a formal call for proposals to find an entity to manage the registry.

The unconscionable delay is part of a larger trend of Ottawa failing to set reasonable ground rules to protect Canadians from unwanted marketing. Not only does Canada trail badly in the creation of a do-not-call registry, but it also stands virtually alone among developed countries in not taking any legislative steps to address the mounting spam problem.

Given the near-universal public support for a do-not-call registry, the existence of a law mandating its creation, and successful implementations around the world, there is no valid excuse for leaving this call on hold.

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