CRTC’s priorities questioned for targeting PlentyOfFish’s ‘infinitesimal’ spam infractions

Document reveals the regulator pursued POF over 0.03% of total complaints

Freedom-of-information documents reveal PlentyOfFish was responsible for 0.03% of spam complaints in Canada when it became the second company penalized under new legislation | Shutterstock

By Tyler Orton

When the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) began investigating spam violators last year, its first target was responsible for 26% of all complaints.

But a freedom-of-information request reveals its second target – Vancouver’s PlentyOfFish (POF) – accounted for a mere 0.03% of complaints, causing experts to question how the regulator is prioritizing reducing spam.

Documents obtained by Business in Vancouver reveal the CRTC began investigating POF last year after receiving a total of 70 complaints against the online dating service.

Ottawa’s spam-reporting centre had received a total of 255,000 complaints when the CRTC announced in March that POF would pay $48,000 over allegations it had violated Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL).

“Unbelievable that PlentyOf Fish was so infinitesimally small a proportion of the total, given how they promoted it as such a significant amount,” Canadian telecom and Internet analyst Mark Goldberg said in an email.

Quebec-based Compu-Finder was fined $1.1 million for violating CASL earlier that same month, becoming the first company penalized under legislation introduced in July 2014.

Although the commission announced Compu-Finder was responsible for 26% of spam complaints, the regulatory agency declined to disclose how many complaints were levelled against POF.

“We do not provide the numbers,” CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao said in a March phone call.

When it was pointed out the CRTC had earlier revealed Compu-Finder accounted for 26% of spam complaints, Valladao said the number of complaints against POF “was not pertinent in this case.”

In a July email, Valladao said the CRTC was attempting to “deter severe non-compliance” and investigations were prioritized based on the nature, seriousness and effect of the violation.

POF agreed to pay the fine after the CRTC alleged emails sent to members of the dating service did not feature a proper unsubscribe button.

“The question is whether the cost – enforcement costs are increasing dramatically each year – [is] worth it,” Goldberg said. “The costs are a burden on legitimate businesses, and, so far, the prosecutions appear to be substantial fines for negligible infractions.”

Anne Mitchell, CEO of the Colorado-based Institute for Social Internet Public Policy, said even though POF may be sending legitimate messages to members, the CRTC can’t look away when enforcing CASL.

“CASL isn’t just specifically about spam,” said Mitchell, one of the authors of the U.S.’s 2003 CAN-SPAM legislation.

“It’s about email best practices and protecting Canadian citizens and others from companies who don’t follow the prescribed best practices which are now codified into law.”

Mitchell added that an unsubscribe link is perhaps the most obvious best practice companies should already be following when sending commercial email.

“If PlentyOfFish was not doing that, that’s just a no-brainer. That is sort of willful disregard for the law,” she said.

“Just because they weren’t sending out Viagra spam doesn’t mean they aren’t in violation of the law.”

POF founder and CEO Markus Frind chuckled when BIV told him documents revealed his company was responsible for 0.03% of all spam complaints. However, he declined to discuss whether he thought the online dating service was being unfairly targeted.

“Commenting on it will just lead to more trouble, so I’m not going to say anything,” he said.

More than 320,000 spam complaints have been filed since CASL went into effect a year ago. In addition to POF and Compu-Finder, Toronto’s Porter Airlines agreed to pay $150,000 over allegations it did not have a proper unsubscribe mechanism in its commercial emails.