Canada’s anti-spam law: The pros and cons

If sending spam is a criminal offense -- or is about to become one -- than you can colour me guilty.

When the final regulations and a July 1, 2014 implementation deadline for the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) were released earlier this week, you could feel a collective chill running through the entire marketing industry. And by “marketing,” I mean every one of us who use e-mail in some way to pitch business, offer services, explore business partnerships and so on. I’m sure I’ve sent such messages to people in the past without having a prior business relationship, or without them having granted me specific permissions. CASL is scary to companies because it slams the door on practices that have quietly, and sometimes innocently, been going on for years.

“It’s a case of asking up front, but in some cases, it will mean asking and asking,” one senior marketing executive at a major Canadian company told me at an event I hosted earlier this week. “And at a certain point customers may say no unless they feel really good about what they’ll be getting in return.”

This is the dilemma: CASL will force a more permission-based approach to e-mail and associated forms of electronic communication. That, in turn, will demand marketers be more relevant to consumers. They don’t feel they can do that, though, unless they have lots of data on individual people to be more targeted in their offers and messages. And you can’t get that data unless you ask first.

According to Patricia Wilson, a lawyer in Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt’s Ottawa office, CASL will be rolled out in phases, where software firms or companies with cloud-based services that communicate largely via e-mail will have until January of 2015 to comply. That extra time might not mean much, however.

“It will be quite onerous, because (CASL) has such a broad application,” she said, adding that a number of firms are proactively reaching out for legal help to make sure they can deal with this before getting fined. “It’s very busy.”

Consumers probably don’t have a lot of sympathy for firms that can’t spam anymore, but the real question is whether it will mean significant relief from unwanted e-mail. Wilson doubts it. While Canadian companies will probably work to respect CASL rules over time, don’t expect the same from those who send those mysterious requests from money from Nigeria, links to online porn or worse. “Those things are largely ungovernable,” she said.

Wilson noted that CASL is also somewhat limited in scope. While it goes things like e-mail and app downloads, technology is creating new avenues for unsolicited messages all the time. Location-based mobile services will beget location-based spam. Social media services will beget social media spam. Once we’re all wearing Google Glass or an Apple iWatch, expect spammers to find a way into those channels too.

CASL will probably help set a bar that’s required for reputable Canadian businesses to better navigate the ethical minefields around collecting and distributing information associated with customers. For the consumers, though, it’s more a question of developing a skill set around managing inboxes and setting up the right filters to keep spam in places where it can be ignored. Even if CASL proves to be a particularly strong law, there’s still nothing that fights spam better than a Delete button.