In the fall of 2017, the CBC ran a high-profile story on high pressure sales tactics used by Canadian telecom companies, sparking a wide range of additional complaints. While Bell claimed the allegations were unfounded and untrue, the CBC followed up with a hidden camera investigation that found more misinformation from Bell sales representatives. Soon after the initial CBC story, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre wrote to CRTC Chair Ian Scott to request a public inquiry into the sales tactics. One month later, Scott rejected the request, noting “Canadians already have a variety of options available to them to seek redress depending on the nature of the issue.” The CRTC response did not sit well with the government, forcing ISED Minister Navdeep Bains to order the Commission to conduct an inquiry.
Yesterday, the CRTC issued its report to the government, where it was shocked – shocked – to find that there are misleading sales tactics being used by Canadian telecom companies that are harming consumers:
Having considered the matter in depth, the CRTC finds that it is apparent that misleading or aggressive retail sales practices are present in the telecommunications service provider market in Canada and, to some extent, in the television service provider market. These practices exist in all types of sales channels, including in store, online, over the telephone, and door to door. They occur to an unacceptable degree; they are harming Canadian consumers, in particular vulnerable Canadians; and they are a serious concern for the CRTC.
The report identifies some possible remedies, ranging from a stronger code of conduct (ironically, its effort to create an Internet Code of Conduct was boycotted last year by many consumer groups after it denied requests for a time extension to file evidence), expanded mandate for the CCTS, and greater monitoring of misleading or aggressive sales practices. There are some good ideas in the report, but there is absolutely no urgency with recommendations framed largely as policies the Commission “will consider” in the future. When asked about a potential timeline, the CRTC responded that it “will take action where appropriate and conduct further public processes where needed.” In other words, the CBC uncovers clear cases of misleading tactics and the industry regulator first ignores the problem, then rejects a request to investigate, and now – after Bell admits that it received over 24,000 consumer complaints about its sales practices in a single year – the best it can say is this “is the beginning of a process, not the end of a process.”
There was nothing stopping the CRTC report from including a timeline or targets or commitments to specific actions. The report does contain a few promises – for example, it says it will develop its own secret shopper program modelled on University of Ottawa work led by Professor Mary Cavanagh – but most recommendations are consigned to future consideration or study. In other words, the issue is reminiscent of the Seinfeld Penske File episode, as Canadian consumers can expect Scott to be hard at work on the issue with few expectations of tangible results. Indeed, the decision to reject an inquiry and only consider the issue when forced to do so by the government arguably says more about the CRTC’s commitment to consumer concerns than its report.