OTTAWA–An Ontario court has cleared the way for a class-action lawsuit against Bell Canada over a controversial advertising program that tracked its customers’ internet, phone and television habits.
On Monday, the Ontario Superior Court certified the class-action lawsuit against Bell over its now-discontinued “Relevant Advertising Program” (RAP). The program tracked Bell customers’ activities to build detailed profiles for third-party advertisers.
While the telecom giant could be on the hook for hundreds of millions in damages over the program, the lawsuit could also have wider implications for internet and tech giants that collect massive amounts of data about their users in order to sell advertising.
“All sorts of e-commerce is trying to collect this information … (and) digitizing it, collecting it and monetizing it,” said Ted Charney, one of the lawyers representing the Bell customers.
“This is where the big money is going now, and people are increasingly beginning to realize that their privacy and their data is worth something. And they’re beginning to feel more and more like they’re being taken advantage of by these companies.”
Charney has previously said $750 million was “a very conservative number” in assessing potential damages, but said Tuesday that it’s difficult to estimate the potential bill for Bell if the lawsuit is successful. He said lawyers are still trying to determine how much money each customer’s personal data was worth to Bell.
Bell’s program, which was revealed in 2013, would collect demographic and location information, service usage, and even the specific websites customers visited and the apps downloaded to their phones. That information could then be used by advertisers hoping to zero in on very specific markets.
The federal privacy commissioner ruled in 2015 that the program ran afoul of Canadian privacy law because Bell did not obtain sufficient consent from its customers for such invasive tracking. Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien recommended that Bell require its customers to explicitly opt in before having their personal information collected.
Bell initially rejected the privacy watchdog’s recommendations, but dropped its opposition after Therrien publicly released his ruling on the program. Bell now runs a “Tailored Marketing Program,” similar to the RAP, which requires customers’ consent.
Interview requests to Bell Canada were not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.
Charney said Bell customers must now be contacted and asked if they’d like to opt out of the lawsuit, a process which typically takes between two and three months. He expects the lawsuit to move forward later this year or in early 2020.
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier