Canadians Wary of Private Sector Big Brother: Want Opt-in Approach to Personal Data Use

Ottawa – Results from a nation-wide survey released today show that Canadians disapprove of widespread business practices in which companies use and share data about them without their knowledge or consent. According to the Industry Canada funded survey, conducted earlier this summer by EKOS Research for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), businesses cannot assume consumer consent to profiling for the purpose of further direct marketing: while many do not mind, 41% of Canadians don’t want companies tracking their purchases, and 82% want businesses to obtain their permission before engaging in such practices, in any case.
“If companies do not ask for consent before profiling their customers for marketing purposes, they are taking a Big Brother approach that consumers don’t appreciate”, said Jean Sébastien, a consumer advocate with the Quebec-based groups Action Réseau Consommateur and Fédération des ACEFs.
The vast majority of Canadians want businesses to use “opt-in” approaches to consent, rather than the “opt-out” or “negative option” approaches that currently predominate in the marketplace. Under “opt-in” approaches, no assumptions are made about consumer consent; the consent must be explicitly provided. Most companies, however, use “opt-out” approaches under which they assume consent unless the customer tells them otherwise. Over two-thirds of Canadians do not consider such approaches to be acceptable, unless they are brought to the customer’s attention, are clearly worded, provide sufficient detail, and are easy to execute. “Rarely are all of these conditions met”, says Philippa Lawson, counsel for PIAC.
Consumer demand for meaningful approaches to consent was even stronger regarding the sharing of their information with affiliates, and was strongest regarding the sharing of their information with unaffiliated third parties.
“Canadians are saying loudly and clearly that they don’t like current business practices”, said Lawson. “They don’t want corporations making assumptions about their privacy preferences, even if it costs more to get explicit consent.”
The survey also shows that Canadians are bothered by the amount of unsolicited direct mail and telemarketing that they are receiving: 74% expressed concern about personalized junk mail, and 61% want to stop all telemarketing calls to their homes even if it means that they miss out on a really good opportunity.
Despite federal legislation requiring companies to obtain consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information in the course of commercial activities, there is no clear guidance as to how companies should go about getting consent, and no easy way for consumers to stop this inundation of direct marketing. Nor is it obvious what businesses are doing with personal customer information: most people are unaware of the extent to which businesses with whom they deal collect, use and share their personal information.
“Clearly, consumers cannot be consenting to practices of which they are unaware”, said Ms. Lawson. “Negative option consent is not real consent in these circumstances. Companies need to explain what they want to do with the customer information, and obtain the customer’s explicit, positive consent to that before using personal information to do anything other than provide the product or service requested by the customer.”
The survey, conducted in late June and early July, questioned over 1,000 Canadians about their views on whether and how businesses should go about obtaining their consent to the use of their personal information for marketing purposes. The issues were further explored with focus groups. The survey is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The full survey report is available via
For more information, contact:
In Ottawa:
Philippa Lawson, PIAC: tel: 613-562-4002 x.24
In Montreal:
Nathalie St.Pierre, Action Réseau Consommateur et Fédération des Associations Coopératifs d’économie familiale, tel: 514-521-6820
In Toronto:
Jim Savary, Consumers’ Association of Canada, 416-736-2100 x. 88150