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Public Interest News: CRTC is not the villain / UBB / Endettement / Premium Text Messages Study / Anti-spam law / Class-action suits / Salubrité des aliments

CRTC is not the villain: Michael Janigan

“Many Canadians view the Canadian Radio Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) as a kind of overbearing vice-principal who tells us what we can listen to or watch. For them, the public rebuke the Harper government delivered to the commission on the issue of Internet usage-based billing was immensely satisfying. But it would be a mistake to ascribe the CRTC’s rather timorous approach to ensuring Internet service competition simply to deference to the big industry players. Instead, it is rooted in the complex history of regulation of the telecommunications industry,” Michael Janigan wrote for the Toronto Star on Feb. 22.

“The merit in having an independent, knowledgeable regulator that aligns industry behaviour with public objectives has long been recognized. That was why the CRTC was created in the first place. This cannot be accomplished simply by close control of the regulator’s potentially unpopular missteps by the Prime Minister’s Office. The CRTC has to have a mandate — unfettered by ideological free market cant — together with the currently missing expertise and political support, to produce the fair and competitive telecommunications and broadcasting markets that Canadians desire,” the Toronto Star op-ed said.

PIAC general counsel to address the sad state of Canadian consumer protection: Abandoned in the market

Michael Janigan will speak to the sad state of Canadian consumer protection:
On Wednesday, March 2, 2011 2:30 p.m.
At 518 Southam Hall, Carleton University, Ottawa

Starting in the last quarter of the twentieth century, governments began to rely on markets themselves to set the rules to protect consumers and the public interest, rather than government regulatory authority. At the same time, traditional defenders of the role of government in society began to concentrate on preserving public programs in such areas as health, education and the environment, and less on private sector behaviour in the marketplace. The lecture will examine how this occurred, the current results and potential remedies for indifference to the consumer economic stake.

Usage-based billing: PIAC backs consumers

“Unlimited Internet service died today,” said John Lawford of the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “(A) 15 per cent discount ensures only that independents (Internet service providers) will survive the imposition of usage-based billing as businesses. There will be no money left over to actually differentiate their service to the point of unlimited,” Iain Marlow reported for the Globe and Mail on Jan. 21.

The Financial Post’s Jameson Berkow reported on Lawford’s Feb. 8 Parliament Hill testimony: “Bell doesn’t lose any money on wholesale traffic. What Bell does lose is its ability to sell its own too-low services at its own too-high prices [without the UBB regime]” … “Having wholesalers impose UBB on the customers of its third-party clients is price-fixing (this is illegal under Canada’s competition act) Bell refuses to provide any public evidence that it’s network is congested during peak times.” … “UBB creates a market of almost fear, really. What if the next Netflix were to come out of Canada we’ll never know? or if an independent film producer was going to release a film through the Internet but now cannot.”

“John Lawford, counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said the concern isn’t just that smaller companies can no longer offer unlimited plans, which reduces competition. “The phone and Internet and cable companies of the world are playing it both ways. They’re saying, ‘Well, there’s these big data hogs that are using too much, we’ve got to punish them to keep the price down.’ On the other hand they’re buying media companies so they have stuff to shove down the wires, which doesn’t count toward your cap,” Lawford said. “That’s anti-competitive,” Kim Guttormson reported for the Calgary Herald on Feb. 2.

Feds should withdraw the 2006 Bernier direction to CRTC

The recent federal government slapdown of the CRTC’s internet usage-based billing (UBB) decision is ironic in that the likely losers (principally Bell Canada and Telus) are reaping the whirlwind from their own aggressive political lobbying and public challenge to the CRTC’s authority of five years ago, an article by Michael Janigan, PIAC general counsel and executive director in the Feb. 14 Hill Times said.

Then Industry Minister Maxime Bernier’s issuance of a policy direction to the CRTC in 2006, mandating, in effect, that regulation should be used only as a last resort, and that all consumer protection rules imposed upon the ILECs (Bell, Telus) had to be exhaustively justified, minimally intrusive and symmetrical. The elevation of the objective of deregulation as a priority was applauded by some as supposedly providing greater freedom of customer choice, the Hill Times article said.

“The fact is that regulating telecommunications in the public interest involves more than simply elevating one priority, such as deregulation or non-intervention, above all the rest. This practice demanded by the current policy direction leads to heroic attempts by the regulator to extract policy solutions, like its UBB decision, that satisfy no one, and eventually to demands from governments and citizens to “just fix it,” Janigan wrote for the Hill Times.

Tell us your story: Premium Text Messages Study

“Have you ever gotten a cell phone bill that charged for premium text messages that you didn’t think you signed up? Have you had problems trying to get these messages or charges stopped? If so, PIAC wants to hear from you! Tell us about the premium text messages you received and how you subscribed to the service (or didn’t). We’d also like to hear about any problems you had making the messages or charges stop.

If you have ever subscribed to or been charged for a mobile premium text message, please email us at premiumtext@piac.ca and tell us about your experience! (Please indicate if we have permission to quote your story.)

Endettement: les Canadiens plus vulnérables

« Ce n’est pas encore la catastrophe, mais la Banque TD espère faire clignoter un «feu jaune» avec son nouvel indice mesurant la vulnérabilité financière des ménages canadiens » Maxime Bergeron a écrit pour La Presse le 10 février.

« Le désarroi financier grandissant de plusieurs familles québécoises est bien palpable sur le terrain. Chez Option consommateurs, qui prodigue des conseils financiers gratuits, la composition de la clientèle a changé radicalement depuis deux ans, souligne Caroline Arel, avocate et responsable du service budgétaire. «Traditionnellement, on rencontrait beaucoup plus des familles à faibles revenus, tandis que, maintenant, il n’est pas rare de rencontrer des ménages avec des revenus familiaux de 100 000$, qui ont une hypothèque, des marges de crédit, des cartes de crédit, des prêts étudiants…» a expliqué Mme Arel » La Presse a rapporté.

Appointments to CRTC: No experience needed

“The minority Conservative government has also come in for its share of criticism, with opposition parties questioning the recent appointment of Athanasios Pentefountas, a lawyer linked to the government, as a CRTC vice-chairman for broadcasting,” Alastair Sharp reported for Reuters on Feb. 17.

Reuters reported: “More than the ties to the Conservatives, we’re at a loss to understand the reason for the appointment of someone with no experience in broadcasting to the vice-chair,” said Michael Janigan, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.”

New anti-spam law carries stiff penalties

“The new anti-spam and anti-spyware legislation has such a broad reach, and is so complex, that organizations conducting business online will need to reassess their business practices for sending commercial electronic messages — or face stiff new penalties of up to $1 million for individuals and $10 million for corporations for each violation,” Luis Millan wrote for Lawyers Weekly on Feb. 11.

“We’re supportive of the approach,” said John Lawford, counsel and research analyst with the non-profit PIAC. “I hope that the anti-spam bill will help reduce spam, but also phishing and other fraudulent emails that cost Canadians millions every year,” Lawyers Weekly reported. Bill C-28 received royal assent on Dec. 15. The article said the new law is expected to come into force by September “at the latest”.

Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services: Mandate expanded

“Customers of all small upstart wireless companies will now be able to lodge consumer complaints with Canada’s telecom consumer agency, the country’s telecommunications regulator ruled,” Sarah Schmidt reported for Postmedia News on Jan. 26. “The CRTC also ruled if it requests the agency to develop a code of conduct to address a widespread consumer problem, the agency’s industry-dominated board cannot kill the idea. … John Lawford, who testified during the hearings on behalf of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Canadian Consumers’ Association, said these two steps are good news for consumers,” Postmedia News reported.

“But Lawford was unsuccessful in convincing the CRTC to expand the mandate of the agency so different types of consumer complaints could be considered. Consumers can only lodge a complaint if it falls in four areas: billing errors, contract disputes, service delivery dealing with installation, repair and maintenance, and the unauthorized transfer of service, known as slamming,” Postmedia News reported.

Manitoba takes aim at cell contracts

“John Lawford, a lawyer with PIAC, said cellphone contracts are “the No. 1 frequent flyer in most provinces for consumer complaints” and commended Manitoba’s effort, but cautioned that most telecommunications issues fall under federal jurisdiction and warned that if legislators here aren’t careful, cellphone companies could launch a court challenge arguing Manitoba has no power to regulate their contracts,” Paul Turenne reported for the Winnipeg Sun on Jan. 23.

“It’s a real need but it’s really tricky,” he said. “Take it slow and pick your spots, then you’ve got a shot,” the Winnipeg Sun quoted Lawford.

Stumbling toward the Aug. 31 digital TV transition deadline

“Less than eight months before Canada’s DTV transition is to occur, it looks as if many Canadian households may lose TV service because their local over-the-air stations will go dark, they won’t have digital sets or set-top boxes equipped to receive DTV signals, or they just won’t know what’s happening,” Communications Daily reported on Jan. 13.

“Some don’t think the CRTC agency has gone far enough, criticizing the government for relying mostly on a market-based approach and taking few actions to spur or support the transition process. Michael Janigan, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, labeled the government’s approach “leadership by amnesia,” Communications Daily reported.

PIAC wants, at minimum, the TV networks to run ads warning the 10% of Canadian households who depend on rabbit ears, about the impending deadline.

You may fit that class-action suit

“Well, whether you know it or not, class-action suits have been a legal tool available to Ontario residents since 1992. “Quebec was the first province to enact class proceedings legislation in 1978,” says Janet Lo, legal counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa,” Al MacRury wrote for the Hamilton Spectator on Jan. 13. “Ontario was the next with the Class Proceedings Act, 1992. The rest of the provinces followed suit except for PEI, where no legislation exists, but class actions are permitted by common law. … The PIAC recently released a report reviewing the success and failure of these actions.

“An alarming trend for consumers, the PIAC notes, is the retaliatory strategy implemented by some firms faced with multimillion-dollar court settlements. They simply pass the cost back to the consumer in the form of a rate increase,” the Hamilton Spectator reported.

Consumers are still not getting benefits promised from industry competition

On Dec. 29 the Canadian Press reported: “Consumers are still paying too much and don’t have enough choice when it comes to mobile phones, the Internet and cable and satellite TV, says a consumer advocacy group.

LuAnn LaSalle reported: “In most services, we lag international models in relation to price and choice,” Michael Janigan of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre said … Even though the telecom industry has been deregulated and restructured to allow more competition, it has been a “frustrated” success for consumers, Janigan said.”

New law finally gives Ottawa power to recall unsafe products

“Canada has taken a giant and long-awaited step in protecting consumers from unsafe products. Bill C-36 received royal assent Dec. 15. It gives Health Canada the power to order recalls of dangerous products — instead of waiting for manufacturers and importers to do their own voluntary recalls,” Ellen Roseman wrote for the Toronto Star on Dec. 17.

“This is probably the most important piece of consumer legislation that we’ve had in a very long time,” says Anu Bose, the Ottawa spokesperson for Option Consommateurs, a consumer group. “We can’t have a 40-year-old law, as the Hazardous Products Act was, when shops are blanketed with objects made elsewhere,” the Toronto Star reported.

SLAPPs: Lawsuits targeting citizen groups

“The Ontario government this week made public the final report of an advisory panel on SLAPP suits (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation). SLAPP suits typically take the form of abusive defamation lawsuits aimed at shutting down criticism by non-governmental organizations or citizen lobby groups…” Michel-Adrien Sheppard wrote for slaw on Dec. 23.

PIAC’s John Lawford is a member of the advisory panel.

“The panel recommends that Ontario adopt anti-SLAPP legislation to protect the freedom of the public to participate in matters of public interest,” slaw reported. The article said the legislation should include speedy and cheap solutions, place onus on plaintiffs, rebalance an inequality of financial resources and provide stronger legal protection for citizens engaged in public participation. h

Bell fined $1.3M for breaking do-not-call rules

“It’s taken a while to get to this stage, but I’m pleased that it’s now happening. To now, it’s been mostly small telemarketers, mom-and-pop shops and, you know, movers and duct cleaners, this sort of thing, people with very small lists not doing large campaigns. So it’s taken a while to get to this stage, but I’m pleased that it’s now happening,” John Lawford told CBC The National on Dec. 20. PIAC helped get the DNC going. The consumer group participates in the consumer oversight of the DNC.

Une nouvelle tribune permet aux groupes de consommateurs d’exprimer clairement leur opinion en matière de salubrité des aliments

Le ministre de l’Agriculture, Gerry Ritz, a lancé une nouvelle table ronde offrant aux consommateurs une occasion additionnelle d’exprimer leurs préoccupations et d’examiner des moyens de parfaire davantage le système canadien d’assurance de la salubrité des aliments le 8 décembre.

Huit grands groupes de consommateurs représentés à l’échelle nationale ou ayant une représentation importante à l’échelle régionale composeront la Table ronde. Option consommateurs est une des groups.

Feds reject complaint about Bell coupon

“A federal regulatory agency has rejected a complaint about Bell Canada’s $100 coupon offer to land-line customers. The phone company can offer land-line customers the coupon, which can only be used to reduce the cost of activating a new cellphone or Bell TV subscription, in lieu of a $67.41 rebate, the CRTC said in a ruling released (Dec. 21),” Postmedia News reported.

The decision is in response to a complaint by the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which argued Bell’s coupon offer didn’t comply with the CRTC’s order to reimburse customers. The commission is giving Bell until March 29 to repay land-line customers $67.41 it found they overpaid from 2002-06. The order applies to all land-line customers as of Aug. 31 of this year. http://www.windsorstar.com/technology/Feds+reject+complaint+about+Bell+coupon/4017031/story.html#ixzz18wI7Hs8j

Lawford appointed to the OBSI Consumer and Investor Advisory Council

“The Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments (OBSI) Wednesday announced the launch of its Consumer and Investor Advisory Council, an independent body that will provide input directly to OBSI’s board of directors,” Investment Executive reported on Dec. 15.

“The first chair of the council is James Savary, Associate Professor of Economics Emeritus at York University in Toronto, and an expert on consumer issues. Savary is a former member of OBSI’s board of directors. Investment Executive reported John Lawford, research analyst and lawyer with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre was appointed to the council.

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