Columns Archive

The Telecom Takeover of Canada’s Do-Not-Call List

Appeared in the Toronto Star on October 22, 2007 as Do-Not-Call List Process a Farce

The news over the summer that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission was at long last moving forward with a national do-not-call list generated a sigh of relief from millions of Canadians fed up with intrusive, unwanted, and inconvenient unsolicited telemarketing calls.  

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.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at


  1. Do not call registries become irrelevant with the implementation of one very simple security measure. Call your telco and get a new unlisted phone number. Give it to your friends and family with instructions never to divulge it to anyone with out your permission. No more annoying phone calls. It’s worked in my household for over 5 years now. You would never dream of not having locks on your doors, so why would you not do the same for your phone line? One more thought. You would never respond to spam email, knowing full well that it will land you on every spammer list in the world. Why would you willingly want to give your home phone number out to a do not call registry that will be read by every telemarketer in the world?

  2. This is a confusing column. It sounds like your main objections are (1) that charities, polling companies will be forced to register with and respect the rules of the DNC list, and you don’t (or do, I can tell) think that’s fair; (2) that the administration of the DNC list will be outsourced, and you think it should be run by civil servants; (3) that telecom service providers will be among the companies allowed to, and best placed to, bid, and you don’t think telecom service providers should be running the DNC list; and (4) that the Complaints Commissioner will act as the regulator, and you think should be run by CRTC employees.

    Well, (1) is unclear and arguable — I think, and it sounds like maybe you think, that pollsters and charities should be just as responsible as the rest of our dinnertime callers; (2) and (3) are at best an ideological preference, since it’s not obvious to all that, as you seem to be asserting, the private sector is less good at running registries than the public sector, nor that TSPs are more evil than other private-sector outsourcers; and (4) is simply the corollary of a whole other argument in which you think (rightly, perhaps; I don’t know, although I certainly think more is to be gained by advocating vigorously regarding its implementation details, than by treating it as a foregone conclusion) that a coregulatory body is necessarily a captured regulatory body.

  3. Edward Palonek says:

    Unlisted numbers
    Edward Palonek writes
    Why is that an unlisted number still gets phone calls from agencies and such. What can anyone do in such a case where the phone number is unlisted? And why is that I can’t return an item at Canadian Tire and other stores without giving away my number? Whats wrong with this picture here? Thanks
    [ link ] Edward Palonek

  4. There can be several reasons as to why your still getting phone calls with an unlisted number. The company can be employing random dialing which is illegal in Canada. Inform the caller immediately that they have reached an unlisted number and to have it removed from their data base. I have found most companies will comply, although you may have to ask more than once. You could also be getting calls intended for the previous holder of that number, or a family member or friend may have forgotten your number is unlisted and given it out to a company that asks for referrals in exchange for free service. I forgot to mention one more thing in my original post. You can keep your same number and order Call Block from your telco. This feature blocks callers that have no name or number display and also has a data base of known telemarketers. The caller receives a message from the system informing them that the line employs this service and prompts them to record their name. Only then does your phone ring, and you are given the option by the system to accept, reject or send the caller directly to voice mail. Stops telemarketers dead in their tracks, even the computer dialed ones. You can also program the number of your pesky next door neighbour into the system so his calls are blocked as well. Finally, I always give Canadian Tire a phoney number when returning product.

  5. T Mazerolle says:

    Why does the authorities have to overthink the “do not call list”. Why shouldn’t be at the callers cost, not ending up as a tax dollar or telephone charge increase to the piblic.
    Why not simply press *xx or something similar, the calling party would be billed a ten dollar fee for each unsolicited call they make, the harrasing party would be unlikely to leave the number for automated calling in the future,if off shore the fee could be added as a long distance fee or such, outside their WATS line coverage.
    You use to be able to write unsolisited on mail and have it returned at an extra cost to them. Why should the phone be differrent, why should we have to request not to be called.

  6. I would like to see a technical solution implemented that changes the North American dialing plan (currently 3-digit area code + 7-digit local number – i.e. (999) 999-9999. I would like to see the equivalent of “check digits” added, so that you’d have something like (999) 999-9999-ccc (where ‘ccc’ are 3 check digits). In order for a caller to successfully connect with a callee, the check digits would have to evaluate properly based on an algorithm that utilizes the caller’s phone number as input. The callee would maintain a database on his end which is essentially a list of numbers from which calls would be accepted, plus the check digits assigned. Note that this isn’t a “totally baked” solution, just something I’d like to float.

  7. Put them on hold ..
    Answer the calls – act like you are interested – and put them on hold. Go watch TV and see just how long they will wait.

    Time is money. You will get flagged and the calls will stop.