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Let's Give Bell Canada the Backlash It Deserves

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When analyzing Bell Canada's controversial decision to track customers' every move for advertising reasons lets set aside privacy issues for a minute and look at it simply from the perspective of a business decision. And when you do, this smells an awful lot like Rogers cable's negative option gaffe almost 20 years ago.

That's because Bell is changing the terms of service to customers without giving said customers any benefit, just like Rogers back in 1995. After weeks of relentless customer backlash, Rogers finally listened to its customers and returned the terms of service back to what customers signed up for.

Bell is in the early stages, sticking to its corporate guns and denying there's a problem as the uproar grows.

Beginning Nov. 16, Bell plans to change its privacy policy so that it can utilize the personal information data of customers to target advertisements based on where you've been, what website you've visited etc. Bell says it will begin with its almost 8 million cellular customers and then move to all customers.

You might think that it's no big deal because Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linked In and many others do similar things.

But here's the rub: those are all free services. Users get benefit from those services in exchange for allowing the use of their personal information. In other words users are not the "customer" of those services but the "product". The real customers of those firms are the organizations that pay them for the information they have and target advertisements based upon it. It's a tradeoff that users have shown they're generally willing to accept, and if they're not they can choose to opt out with a click of their mouse and move to a competitor.

Bell has announced they intend to enter this same business of monetizing customer information. That might be a perfectly acceptable business opportunity for them but there's one very significant difference. Last time we checked, Bell charges hefty fees for its cellular, Internet and phone services. They are most definitely not free services.

So, where's the benefit to Bell's customers? If you believe Bell, the benefit is they will get ads that they're interested in, not general ads that they're not interested in.

Does that sound like a fair trade for your personal information? Most people I ask don't think so.

If Bell wants to both charge users for services AND make money based on their data they need to offset the new privacy intrusion with additional tangible benefits in exchange. Google lets us access all the worlds' information easily. Facebook allows us to connect with our friends. LinkedIn lets us keep in touch with business contacts.

What value will Bell offer us in exchange for our data? Will they lower the cost of our internet or cell phone service if we choose to opt in to the new system? Now that's worth a conversation.

And finally, whatever they do it's got to be optional.

In his autobiography Relentless, the late Ted Rogers addressed the negative option fiasco and wrote, we "forgot about the customer... it was a mistake that was quickly rectified and has not been repeated, nor will it ever be repeated at Rogers."

Bell -- and others for that matter -- would do well to heed the advice of the great entrepreneur before they suffer a severe customer backlash similar to the negative option billing uproar. They simply can't implement a "negative option" data grab.

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