Consumer protection experts have split reactions to Premier Doug Ford’s Conservative government’s Bill 66, which aims to repeal the Wireless Services Agreement Act of 2013.
The bill, ‘Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act’ by amending or repealing certain Acts, was introduced by Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Todd Smith, Ontario’s minister of economic development, job creation and trade on December 6th, 2018.
“The Schedule repeals the Wireless Services Agreement Act, 2013 and revokes the two regulations made under it,” the 35-page bill reads.
David Woolley, press secretary for Progressive Conservative MPP Bill Walker, who is also Ontario’s minister of government and consumer services, said in an email to MobileSyrup on December 7, 2018, that the Wireless Services Agreement Act “has been superseded by federal regulations which provide nearly identical protections for all Canadians.”
“By repealing it, we are harmonizing with federal regulations, which have made the original provincial Act redundant,” Woolley said. “Repealing the provincial Wireless Services Agreements Act frees businesses from burdensome duplicate regulations and provides consumers with clarity on their wireless service rights. Ontarians are also protected through the Consumer Protection Act.”
“By repealing it, we are harmonizing with federal regulations, which have made the original provincial Act redundant.”
Because the bill still has to be debated by MPPs in the Ontario Legislature and will probably be studied in committee, before it heads off to Royal Assent, Monica Auer, executive director of the Forum for Research and Policy, said it was a bit hard to give a full reaction.
Auer noted that the question she’s asking right now is “whether or not [repealing the Act] will…make people in Ontario better off, the same, or worse off?… Does the Wireless Code itself have protections people need across the board?”
“Presumably one would like to think in a way [repealing the Act] reduces complications because instead of having a possibility of two avenues to deal with concerns about a wireless contract, now you’re back to one,” Auer said referring to users having to rely on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications’ (CRTC) Wireless Code.
The CRTC created the mandatory code in 2013 that applies to all service providers and all retail mobile wireless voice and data services.
To simplify, the code says consumers who feel that their service provider is not “adhering to the code” must first try and resolve the issue with their service provider, and if the conflict continues then consumers should take their complaints to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS).
As per the code, service providers have to make it easy for people to get and understand wireless service agreements, they have to establish “consumer-friendly” business practices, and they have to “contribute to a more dynamic wireless market.”
Simultaneously, in 2013, the Liberal Ontario government at the time opted to enact its Wireless Services Agreements Act, which added the ability to launch a class action lawsuit.
At the time the Toronto Star reported that then-minister of consumer services Tracy MacCharles said the rules would “complement” the Wireless Code.
The act resulted in service contracts for smartphones needing to be written in plain language so customers would be able to easily understand them.
The act also capped the cancellation fee for a fixed-term agreement to $50 CAD and required consent from customers for changes to be made to service terms.
Further, it allowed users to cancel a contract after two years without having to pay for any charges other than remaining payments for their handset.
It was designed to protect cellphone users and applied to new cellphone service contracts as well as existing contracts. If carriers did not comply with the rules, then they would have to give a full refund for up to a year of service to their customers.
Auer said that the government, if it plans to repeal the Act, has to believe the CRTC has the right approach to dealing with wireless contracts and consumer concerns, and in turn, if the CCTS has the ability to effectively deal with Ontario consumer complaints.
It is important to note that the CCTS is an association of companies that are required to be members of it and there are penalties for not being a member, but it does not have authority to reprimand telecom companies as a governmental body could.
PIAC’s perspective: “if it’s gone, it’s actually easier”
John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), said it was a long-standing problem between the federal government and provincial government fighting over whether their jurisdiction deals with wireless incumbents.
“PIAC has always taken the position that the provinces have zero jurisdiction,” Lawford said. “So strangely, we are on the same side [as various companies]. To us, the risk of having provincial interference in the telecom sphere greatly outweighs any small advantage to consumers to have the belt and suspenders approach to consumer protection on this one issue.”
Lawford said that the Act didn’t really do anything for people, it didn’t really have any beneficial effect on consumers, and it gave companies headaches.
“PIAC has always taken the position that the provinces have zero jurisdiction,”
“It did have a couple of provisions, which sure, I would love to have in the Wireless Code,” Lawford said. “It sounds anti-consumer but it’s absolutely true, these things don’t matter and I mean if it’s gone it’s actually easier.”
When asked if the CCTS would be able to handle the requests, Lawford responded with the question: “how many complaints did the provincial ministry get?”
“I’m guessing a couple hundred max? And of those, I bet 150 of them went to the CCTS as well, it just overlaps. It’s one of these few areas in Canada that I work in where it’s clear it should be federal and the provinces [are], frankly, overreaching.”
Lawford made it clear though that if the repeal is meant to affect consumers and “this is viewed as taking the first of many swipes at the consumer protection efforts,” then PIAC “will be all over them.”
Open Media: “We need the intervention from the government”
Laura Tribe, executive director at Open Media, said that with only one paragraph relating to wireless in the bill, it’s hard to determine exactly what will happen.
“But when you look at the intentions of the bill and how it’s framed…it largely focuses on deregulation and on opening up corporate powers and taking away government interference,” Tribe said.
“Whatever your political and economic beliefs on that pipe are, when it comes to issues of telecom, we have strongly seen in Canada that we need that intervention from the government until at least we have more competition to help mitigate that.”
Tribe’s initial thoughts said the government is largely coming from trying to remove any regulation and requirements on companies and said this is a problem that Canada should not be dealing with right now.
“So the threat of class action is much more intimidating to those companies than something like a mitigated process through the CCTS.”
“We need that judicial process, we need that legislative and legal process that these provide,” she said.
Tribe explained that the CCTS processes complaints individually and that the difference with having the courts involved is that they don’t have to start from scratch every single time every individual comes through to process a complaint.
“You can show a pattern and that is the real threat to companies. I don’t think individual complaints are a threat because there are so many people who don’t know they can complain, they don’t know the recourse, and the penalties are so low.
“So the threat of class action is much more intimidating to those companies than something like a mitigated process through the CCTS. I think that these rules are important to protect consumers. That’s not to say we need one or the other, but we need both.”
Tribe raised similar concerns regarding whether the Wireless Code has enough protections that people need and whether it can stand alone.