Mark Goldberg

Strange bedfellows

An old proverb says that adversity makes strange bedfellows.

If so, there must be a lot of adversity in the CRTC’s review of paper billing practices by communications services providers, because a glance at the interventions indicates there are some strange bedfellows.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and the National Pensioners Federation (NPF), say that they are “intervening on behalf of all Canadian consumers and in particular senior members of NPF.” They want the CRTC to order, as a condition of offering communications services in Canada that “Customers should be enrolled in paper billing unless they voluntarily switch to ebilling”; and “Companies should be required to obtain explicit, verifiable consent to switch a
customer to e-billing.”

Recall that Canada’s Harper Government enacted anti-e-commerce legislation 5 years ago [see: “Paper artifacts of political pandering“], where this clause was added to the Telecom Act:

27.2 Any person who provides telecommunications services shall not charge a subscriber for providing the subscriber with a paper bill.

At the time, I wrote about the strange (but different) wording chosen for a similar clause in the Broadcast Act. As the CRTC found earlier this year, the legislation may have prohibited charging for paper bills, but “there is no indication that Parliament intended this provision to be interpreted as also imposing an obligation to provide subscribers with paper bills”. In other words, the CRTC’s view of the legislation is that service providers can’t charge for a paper bill, but there is also no obligation to actually provide a paper bill.

PIAC’s view was supported by a variety of parties, some of them I found to be quite interesting. A number of the independent service providers were in favour of mandating paper bills, as long as those obligations fell upon their competitors and not themselves. Apparently, their customers don’t have the same needs.

The CEO of Peterboro Matboards, a company that provides mats to the framing industry, said “Since as Canadians we pay the highest cell phone rates in the world I believe I should get a hard copy mailed to me if I so choose.” He apparently didn’t see the connection between service prices and the imposition of high cost regulatory obligations.

That wasn’t the only paper company to intervene. The vice president of government relations of giant Domtar (2019 revenues of US$5.2B) wrote from South Carolina to tell the CRTC “Communication service providers should be required to have clear consent from consumers before a switch to digital is made.”

I thought the most interesting filing came from a group called “Keep Me Posted North America“. Although Keep Me Posted North America is Chicago based, the “Supporters” page for the organization includes Canada’s PIAC as a coalition member. “Keep Me Posted North America is a coalition of consumer groups, charities and businesses that represent North Americans who are disadvantaged by lack of choice, or simply want to retain paper-based communications.”

The intervention is interesting and it cites a “survey of 1,044 Canadian consumers [that] was commissioned by Two Sides”. There is no other reference to Two Sides, other than a link to its study. It turns out that Two Sides North America happens to share the same office as Keep Me Posted North America, in the heart of Chicago. As an aside, the 52-story office tower (330 N. Wabash) looks like it should be part of Toronto’s TD Centre; it too was designed in the same era by modernist architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

But let’s get back to Two Sides. According to its website,

Two Sides North America is an independent, non-profit organization, and is part of the Two Sides global network which includes more than 600 member companies across North America, South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa. Our member companies span the Graphic Communications and Paper-based Packaging value chain, including forestry, pulp, paper, paper-based packaging, chemicals and inks, pre-press, press, finishing, printing, publishing, envelopes and postal operations.

So, Keep Me Posted North America claims to be a consumer coalition that just happens to share office space with the pulp and paper lobbyist, Two Sides North America. Perhaps it was by happy coincidence that Keep Me Posted North America came across a survey of Canadians conducted by its office mate. After all, the filing by Keep Me Posted only said “KMP is a pro-consumer campaign designed to provide educational and awareness programs so that consumers are empowered to choose the best delivery method for their social and economic needs.”

Of course, it isn’t a coincidence. A 2018 article in Graphic Arts Magazine makes it clear that Keep Me Posted is a ‘campaign’ overseen by Two Sides. Some might call it astro-turfing. PIAC is close enough to Keep Me Posted that it was PIAC that filed the intervention on Keep Me Posted’s behalf, when the Chicago-based group had trouble accessing the CRTC’s website.

A couple years ago, Two Sides wrote a blog post “Comcast’s “EcoBill” is all about saving money, not trees!” With so many complaining about communications prices in Canada, why would a Canadian public interest group be a coalition member, jumping into bed with “Big Paper”? As I have written so many times before, there is a cost associated with regulation, costs that ultimately get passed on to consumers.

Shouldn’t we support efforts to lower costs?

Speaking of costs, normally PIAC would file an application with the CRTC following the close of filings for a proceeding, seeking reimbursement of its costs associated with participating, in accordance with the CRTC’s Rules. I have to wonder if PIAC should be seeking costs from its coalition partners, North America’s multi-billion dollar pulp and paper industry.

The CRTC will make a determination on whether to impose costly new regulatory obligations on communications services providers. Should Canadian communications services subscribers underwrite costs for the bedfellows of the pulp and paper industry.

Indeed, the CRTC could even determine that the pulp and paper industry can be called upon to look after their own coalition member, and have the various participating paper companies named as respondents for other cost-award applicants. The CRTC needs to “follow-the-money” on the interventions, looking at Keep Me Posted from more than one angle – perhaps from two sides, so to speak.

When it joined a front group representing the pulp and paper industry, did PIAC know with whom it was getting into bed?

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