My weekly technology column (Toronto Star version, Ottawa Citizen version, homepage version) focuses on the quiet telecom takeover of the forthcoming national do-not-call list. In the past few months, the do-not-call list details have begun to emerge with the CRTC addressing questions surrounding who will run the list, who will pay for it, and who will investigate consumer complaints. While Canadians might expect most of those responsibilities to rest with the CRTC, the Commission appears to have a far different vision – one that involves a near-complete outsourcing of responsibilities to Canada’s dominant telecommunications companies.
The CRTC was never particularly supportive of the do-not-call list. Indeed, Charles Dalfen, the former CRTC chair, told the Canadian Press in 2004 that a do-not-call list was a good idea, but that the Commission "isn't equipped to administer such a list and doesn't have the power to enforce it properly." Consistent with that perspective, the CRTC has sketched out a system where the do-not-call list would be maintained by a non-governmental entity and paid for primarily by businesses that engage in telemarketing. Complaints would be investigated by the newly-created telecom company-backed complaints commission.
This system has elicited considerable opposition from some marketing, financial, and charitable groups, yet the telecom companies are unsurprisingly supportive since they are literally poised to run the entire operation from registration to investigation.
Start with operation of the do-not-call list. The CRTC's open call set a high bar on who can run the list, effectively eliminating many smaller businesses from the competition. That left the telecommunications companies – already familiar with calling and registration systems – as the leading candidates. Last week, a Bell spokesperson acknowledged that the company has submitted a bid to run the list.
The question of who will pay for the list is even more controversial. The CRTC has proposed a system whereby all businesses that use telemarketing – including those exempt from the list such as charities and polling companies – will be required to register with the list and pay a registration fee. The Commission has rightly concluded that the exemption found in the legislation is a limited one since exempt entities must still maintain an internal do-not-call list and will be subject to enforcement action if they fail to respect a customer's request to opt-out of telemarketing calls.
This proposal has enraged some groups who claim that the registration and fee requirements will create an unfair burden on Canadian businesses. Left unsaid is that those same businesses believe that the burden on individual Canadians – who even with a do-not-call list must still take the time to register with hundreds of organizations if they want to stop invasive telemarketing calls – is perfectly acceptable.
That leaves the matter of investigation. The CRTC would like to offload that responsibility as well, proposing that the Commissioner of Complaints for Telecommunications Services, a body established by the telecom industry itself, assume the role of complaint investigator. The telecom companies oppose the use of CCTS for these purposes, instead advocating a new call for a third-party investigative body. The companies hasten to note that the do-not-call list operator should not be precluded from bidding for that job as well.
Taken together, the do-not-call list process has degenerated into a farce. Having absolved itself of responsibility, the CRTC may now be ready to hand over the operation of the list to Canada's telecom companies, who will collect a steady stream of revenue from thousands of Canadian businesses. The business model might be a good one for the telecom companies, but it does little to serve the broader public interest. Not only is the CRTC staying on the sidelines, but Industry Minister Jim Prentice (and his predecessor Maxime Bernier) have been similarly missing-in-action.
Opponents have likened the emerging framework to the gun registry with its big costs and administrative burden. In reality, the do-not-call list presents precisely the opposite problem. By privatizing everything, there will be no government overruns since there will be virtually no government. Instead, the phone companies will sit front and centre, having moved deftly from charging telemarketing firms to make phone calls to charging them to stop making them