04/14/2015 02:40 EDT | Updated 06/22/2015 08:59 EDT

Bell needs to offer incentive to lure customers to ad tracking program: expert

MONTREAL - Bell Canada will have to offer some form of financial incentive if it hopes to get customers to participate in its relaunched targeted advertising program, says a technology law expert.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist said it's hard to imagine a lot of Canadians agreeing to have their cellphone usage tracked and sold to advertisers unless they receive some tangible benefit.

"I don't think a lot of people would want to opt-in unless Bell provides real incentives for doing so," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Bell vowed Monday to reintroduce its ad program after accepting the Privacy Commissioner's recommendation to obtain the explicit consent of customers to allow their cellphone use to be tracked and the information sold to advertisers.

However, the telecom giant declined to provide any details on when that will take place or whether it will offer incentives.

American telecom provider AT&T offers $5 off per month off its broadband service if customers agree to be tracked.

Under Bell's old program it only tracked the activities of cellphone clients, but has indicated it would extend that to landlines and to TV viewing habits.

Geist foresees Bell linking its discount to the number of services a customer uses.

"A lot of people would say that their privacy is worth more than $5 per month but there may be some that say, 'well you want to pay me $60 a year to track me that's something I'm willing to do,'" said Geist, Canada research chair in Internet and e-commerce law.

Digital advertising is a multibillion-dollar market that is growing as more spending shifts from traditional advertising.

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien has said there is no reason why Bell can't offer an incentive. He also accepted that Bell's goal of maximizing advertising revenue while improving the online experience of customers was a legitimate business objective.

But Geist said Bell is in unchartered territory with its program since it's not clear what price people put on their privacy. Some experiments suggest people may be willing to pay extra to avoid advertising when they search the Internet or use Facebook or Twitter.

Bell has said its program will deliver more relevant advertising to consumers based on their interests. It pointed to a U.S. survey that found 55 per cent of respondents said personalized ads would save them time and keep them from browsing irrelevant content. Younger respondents were more open to such ads.

Geist said he doesn't believe people put much value on these ads, but said other large Canadian telecom companies are watching Bell closely and may want to launch their own programs depending on the public reaction.

Meanwhile, Toronto firm Charney Lawyers says it will launch a class-action lawsuit against Bell Canada over the advertising program that attracted numerous complaints and saw 113,000 Bell customers opt out.

The firm says it plans to seek compensation for Bell cellphone customers with data plans after Nov. 16, 2013, according to a posting on its website.

Bell declined to comment on the threatened lawsuit.

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