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Comments to CRTC on Reverse Directory Services – Initial comments

Link to CRTC proceeding

Initial Comments

Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0N2

Attention:
Ms. Ursula Menke
Secretary General

Dear Ms. Menke:

Re: Public Notice CRTC 2001-56: Reverse Search Directory Assistance

1. The following submission is made on behalf of Action Réseau Consommateur, the Consumers’ Association of Canada, and the National Anti-Poverty Organization (“ARC et al”), in response to the above-noted public notice.

2. As a preliminary matter, ARC et al submit that regulations governing the privacy of customer personal information, including reverse search directory assistance (“RSDA”), should be consistent across all telephone companies. As the Commission notes, privacy concerns are common to all telephone company customers. There is no reason to apply different standards of privacy protection to different telephone companies.
Application of the PIPED Act

3. The new federal privacy law, Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (“the PIPED Act”), now applies to telephone companies. It requires that companies obtain customer consent to the disclosure of that customer’s personal information. Personal information, under the PIPED Act, is defined as “information about an identifiable individual”, and hence includes published name, telephone number, and address – information that the Commission has treated as “non-confidential”. However, through its Regulations Specifying Publicly Available Information, the PIPED Act makes an exception to the requirement for consent for “personal information consisting of the name, address and telephone number of a subscriber that appears in a telephone directory that is available to the public, where the subscriber can refuse to have the personal information appear in the directory”. Hence, telephone companies are not restricted from offering RSDA under the PIPED Act.

4. While the Commission should ensure that its rulings are consistent with the PIPED Act, it must not fetter its discretion by treating the PIPED Act as the final answer on all matters to do with customer privacy. In exercising its obligations under the Telecommunications Act, the Commission must take into account many other relevant factors and policy objectives specific to the telecommunications industry and to telecommunications subscribers. Hence, the Commission is free to establish higher standards of privacy protection under the Telecommunications Act than are required under the PIPED Act.

5. It has also been pointed out that reverse search services are already available via the Internet and commercial publications. Hence, prohibiting or restricting telephone companies from offering this service will not solve the general problem of privacy invasion caused by the ability of marketers, stalkers and others to obtain personal information via a telephone number.

6. ARC et al appreciate this situation, but submit that it does not justify enhancing the potential for privacy invasions through the provision by telephone companies of a RSDA service.

7. The Public Notice poses two questions:

a) whether the provision of RSDA service by the telephone companies is appropriate in light of the objectives of the Telecommunications Act; and

b) if the provision of RSDA service by the telephone companies is appropriate, what common tariff conditions should exist for telephone companies under CRTC jurisdiction.

Is the provision of RSDA service appropriate?

8. One of the Canadian telecommunications policy objectives set out in section 7(i) of the Telecommunications Act is “to contribute to the protection of privacy of persons”.

9. The provision of reverse directory services is clearly invasive of privacy, and hence contrary to this objective. The more detailed the information provided via a reverse directory (e.g., street location vs. municipality), the more privacy-invasive the service.

10. However, invasions of privacy may be justified for public policy reasons, or where individual consent to the invasion has been obtained or can reasonably be implied.

11. ARC et al submit that there is no public policy rationale justifying the non-consensual provision of reverse directory services, given the obvious infringement to privacy that they pose. Hence, the provision of such services should be only with the individual’s consent.

12. Previous approaches to RSDA, including that of the PIPED Act, assume that once a person’s telephone number and address is published in a telephone directory indexed alphabetically by name, that person has implicitly consented to the re-indexing of this information by telephone number and to the consequent disclosure of their listed name and location to any third party for any purpose.

13. This reasoning is flawed for a number of reasons. First, customers who have consented to the publication of their name in the alphabetical telephone directory have not necessarily consented to the provision of their name and location to third parties upon the provision of a telephone number. There is a material difference between the disclosure of a published address and/or telephone number upon the provision of a name, and the disclosure of name and/or address upon the provision of a number. The former is a service commonly requested by and provided to individuals seeking to contact other individuals whose names they know. The latter is a service with little value to the ordinary citizen/consumer – rather, it is likely to be used primarily by commercial entities seeking to collect name and address information for unsolicited marketing or other privacy-invasive purposes.

14. Second, while it is true that unlisted service is available to subscribers who wish to avoid the publication of this information, unlisted service is only available for a fee (a recurring monthly rate of up to $2/month). Hence, many lower income subscribers who would like to take this service, do not for affordability reasons. Moreover, unlisted service provides no alternative for those subscribers who wish to be listed in the regular directory, but who do not wish to have their names or locations provided via RSDA. Unlisted service is therefore neither a fair nor realistic alternative for most consumers. The Commission must ensure that privacy can be achieved by all subscribers, not just those with high disposable incomes or extensive privacy needs.

15. For all these reasons, ARC et al submit that the provision of RSDA services by telephone companies without the individual’s consent is inappropriate in light of Telecommunications Act objectives.

16. ARC et al note that a previous application by Telus for reverse directory services that would have provided listed address as well as name upon provision of a telephone number was denied by the Commission, on the grounds that the provision of specific address information was too privacy-invasive. ARC et al agree that Bell’s proposed service is significantly less privacy-invasive insofar as it does not provide specific address information, and does not even make this information available via the RSDA to operators. Nevertheless, ARC et al submit that the provision of name and location via RSDA should be subject to individual subscriber consent.
What conditions should be placed on RSDA services?

17. While Bell Canada does not propose any measures to ensure that RSDA listings are consensual, it is noteworthy that Bell permits its subscribers to opt-out of its Internet-based Canada 411 listings, along with other disclosures of customer listing information (see p.29 of the Bell Canada English Telephone Directory). The only significant difference between the proposed RSDA and Canada 411 is that users must pay for the former. While this charge will likely limit use of the proposed service, it does not justify the failure to offer a free opt-out. Consumers must at a minimum be able to opt-out of a reverse directory service for free, they way they can for Canada 411.

18. Moreover, ARC et al submit that, for the RSDA service to be compatible with subscriber privacy under the Telecommunications Act, there must be an opt-out process that is effectively brought to the consumer’s attention before the subscriber’s name is provided via a reverse directory service, as well as regularly after the fact. In other words, there must be a much more effective opt-out than is currently provided by Bell Canada in respect of Canada 411 listings, for example. All opt-outs should be effected (i.e., the listing removed from the directory) within a short period (e.g., 48 hours) of the request. In this respect, ARC et al propose that the opt-out option be brought to subscribers’ attention annually via the monthly bill and/or bill inserts, as well as via the print directory and the Companies’ privacy policies.

All of which is respectfully submitted,

Philippa Lawson
Counsel for ARC et al

cc: Interested parties, PN 01-56

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