By Lala Qadir

Canada’s telecommunications regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), issued its first fine under a new anti-spam law.  The CRTC alleged that Compu-Finder sent users emails without acquiring their consent and did not provide a way for consumers to unsubscribe from the emails.   Compu-Finder has 30 days to submit written representations to the CRTC or pay the penalty.  It can also request an “undertaking” with the CRTC on this matter.

Under Canada’s Anti-Spam Law (CASL), which came into effect on July 1, 2014, businesses are required to obtain explicit consent from users prior to sending them commercial electronic messages.  Prior to this law, companies relied on implied consent to assume that consumers consented to communications by providing them an email address.   Additionally, CASL prohibits making false or misleading representations in electronic communications and collecting personal information without consent.

Canadian consumer groups had long advocated for stringent laws regulating how a consumer’s personal information could be used marketing purposes.  But CASL’s passage was not without opposition.  In fact, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Marketing Association, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, and the Entertainment Software Association of Canada opposed much of the law.  Intense lobbying by industry included concerns about the cost to implement the law, particularly on small businesses.   As such, although the law was adopted by Parliament in December 2010, a three-year grace period was provided for enforcement of the anti-spam provisions which came into effect on July 1, 2014.  Provisions relating to the unsolicited installation of computer programs or software came into force on January 15, 2015.  And a private right of action, modeled on the CAN-SPAM Act in the United States as referenced here, will be enforced as of July 1, 2017.

In its news release concerning the fine against Compu-Finder, Chief Compliance and Enforcement Officer Manon Bombardier noted that CRTC conducted numerous outreach initiatives to increase awareness of businesses on the new requirements of the law.  “Despite the CRTC’s efforts, Compu-Finder flagrantly violated the basic principles of the law by continuing to send unsolicited commercial electronic messages after the law came into force to email addresses it found by scouring websites,” Bombardier said in the statement.

The CRTC statement further explained that pursuant to an investigation, the CRTC found that Compu-Finder sent commercial electronic messages promoting various training courses.  Four specific instances were cited, occurring between July 2014 and September 2014.  “By issuing this Notice of Violation, my goal is to encourage a change of behaviour on the part of Compu-Finder such that it adapts its business practices to the modern reality of electronic commerce and the requirements of the anti-spam law.”

The CRCT assesses complaints submitted to the Spam Reporting Centre.   Although the Compu-Finder fine was the first of its kind—accounting for 26% of all complaints submitted to the Spam Reporting Centre under that industry sector—more fines are likely to come.  The CRTC indicated that, “a number of investigations are currently underway” and that “[t]he CRTC is working with its partners, both within Canada and internationally, to protect Canadians from online threats and contribute to a more secure online environment.”  Businesses that violate the law face penalties of up to $10 million per violation, while individuals could be fined up to $1 million per infraction.

There are three government agencies responsible for enforcement of CASL.   In addition to the CRTC which issues administrative monetary penalties for violations, the Competition Bureau can seek administrative monetary penalties or criminal sanctions under the Competition Act and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner can exercise new powers under an amended Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.   The law also allows all three agencies to share information with the government of a foreign state if the information is relevant to an investigation or proceeding in respect of a contravention of the laws of a foreign state that is substantially similar to the conduct prohibited by this Canadian law.