The president of one of Canada’s leading consumer groups says the government isn’t doing enough to ensure groups like his can make sure big companies don’t take advantage of cash-strapped Canadians.
“We don’t have funding and often we are up against multi-billion dollar companies like telecoms and food producers,” said Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers Association of Canada (CAC).
Industry Canada hands out around $1.6 million in grants each year for non-profit and volunteer consumer groups to carry out specific research projects, but does not fund activities to take on industry, carry out public awareness campaigns, or lobby the government for consumer interests.
Without regular funding, groups are left with few resources besides volunteer labour and donations to take on companies like Bell Canada, which reported over $20 billion in operating revenue in 2013.
CAC is challenging Bell over its plan to track how customers use its services (including age, gender, location, browsing history, app and device feature usage, TV viewing, and calling patterns) in order to deliver targeted ads.
“Bell is trying to ‘double-dip’ by taking your subscription fees and then selling information based on your use of the services you just paid for,” said Cran in a recent press release.
“The government talks about levelling the playing field, but what it all boils down to in the end is money.”
Without funding, consumer groups are limited and Canadians have to rely heavily on the government to take on industry when needed through agencies like the Office of Consumer Affairs (OCA).
But Cran said the OCA doesn’t have the budget and is housed within Industry Canada—the very government department consumer groups are often challenging.
“Industry Canada represents industries you are trying to improve,” he said.
Industry Canada is often the antagonist, explained Cran, not in the way of being a villain, but in being the opposing force to the causes consumer groups are trying to push.
“It seems to be a very conflicting association to have the OCA as a very small part of Industry Canada,” he said.
One consumer group, the Consumer Council of Canada (CCC), thinks consumer advocacy efforts should be funded with a portion of government fines levied against misbehaving companies—such as food processors that violate food safety rules.
“There is sense in the idea that business sectors that incur more costs of regulation and enforcement should carry more of those costs,” said Ken Whitehurst, the group’s executive director.
Monitoring and researching the industries with complex regulations and practices is a difficult job that requires resources, and those should come from companies themselves, he said.
“Administrative monetary penalties could be a source of those resources.”
The less attractive alternative is for governments to fund groups like the CCC with money collected from taxpayers.
Another upside to funding consumer advocacy groups with that money is it gives companies one more reason to behave. Currently, fines could be seen as a cost of doing business, but if the money from fines went to groups like the CCC, they could fund and empower critics who could hold companies accountable.
“The modest revenues that might emerge for consumer impacts research would help improve the accountability of both government and business in the process,” Whitehurst said.
Consumer groups could then focus on making sure they have stronger facts to act on when addressing impacts on consumers.
“Frankly, sometimes our knowledge could be better,” noted Whitehurst.