Thank you for the invitation to attend this committee meeting as well. I'm joined by my colleague from the bureau, Mr. Currie.
I understand the committee is looking into PIPEDA, and in that context has questions about the bureau's role with respect to Canada's anti-spam legislation, or CASL, as well as the bureau's experiences with administrative monetary penalties, or AMPs.
I'll begin by providing some context about the Competition Bureau and its mandate, and then move to your specific concerns. I will not be commenting on PIPEDA per se, as that is outside the bureau's purview.
The Competition Bureau, as an independent law enforcement agency, ensures that Canadian consumers and businesses prosper in a competitive and innovative marketplace. Headed by the Commissioner of Competition, the Bureau is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the Competition Act and three labelling statutes.
The Competition Act provides the commissioner with the authority to investigate anti-competitive behaviour. The act contains both civil and criminal provisions and covers conduct such as bid-rigging, false or misleading representations, price-fixing, and abusing a dominant market position, among other things. The act also grants the commissioner the authority to make representations before regulatory boards, commissions, or other tribunals to promote competition in various sectors.
As noted above, when conducting investigations, the bureau uses the Competition Act's relevant criminal and civil provisions. The introduction of CASL brought about specific amendments to the Competition Act that enabled the bureau to more effectively address false or misleading representations and deceptive marketing practices in the electronic marketplace, such as false or misleading sender or subject-matter information, electronic messages, and website content, such as a locator, meaning a website or an IP address. The changes provided technologically neutral language to allow us to better address competition offences in the digital economy. I would note that the bureau had these powers before CASL, but now the requirements of proof have been lessened.
For the most part, the bureau's investigations are commenced following a complaint. Such complaints may come from a number of sources, including consumers, businesses, industry associations, the media, or stakeholders.
As a law enforcement agency, the bureau conducts its activities, including investigations, in confidence, meaning that all non-public information gathered by the bureau in enforcement matters, whether obtained voluntarily or through the use of formal powers, is held on a confidential basis.
This is fundamental to the Bureau's ability to effectively continue to advance its investigations in the public interest.
The law requires that we not comment publicly on an investigation until the matter has been made public either by the party, or certain steps have been taken, such as the filing of an application with the Competition Tribunal, or the announcement of a settlement.
Even in those instances, we are required by law to keep confidential any information which is not public. This is done both to protect the integrity of the Bureau's investigations as well as to protect the parties and others.
That said, the Competition Act's “confidentiality” provision, section 29, does allow the bureau to share confidential information with other law enforcement agencies for the purpose of the administration and enforcement of our act.
Turning now to AMPs, the bureau may only seek them in a civil context, not criminal. Also, the bureau does not impose AMPs. They are either reached through a settlement with the target of an investigation, or they are imposed by the Competition Tribunal or a court after a finding of reviewable conduct under the Competition Act.
The goal of an administrative monetary penalty for civilly reviewable conduct is to promote compliance in a market and deter companies from misleading Canadian consumers, all of which is in the public interest.
Let me give you three recent examples where the bureau has obtained AMPs under the Competition Act. First, in June of 2016 the bureau announced its first settlement involving the new CASL provisions. The settlement with Avis and Budget resolved an investigation wherein the bureau had concluded there was false or misleading advertising for prices and discounts on car rentals and associated products.
Specifically, certain prices and discounts initially advertised by the two companies were not attainable because consumers were charged additional mandatory fees that were only disclosed later in the purchasing process when making a reservation. The prices were advertised on Avis' and Budget's websites, mobile applications, and emails, as well as through other channels. As part of the settlement in this case, Avis and Budget paid $3 million in an administrative monetary penalty to promote compliance with the law going forward.
Earlier this year, the bureau settled its case with Amazon where we again utilized an amended Competition Act provision introduced through CASL addressing false or misleading representations in all forms of electronic messages. In this instance, Amazon often compared its prices to a regular or list price, signalling attractive savings for Canadian consumers.
The bureau's investigation concluded that these claims created the general impression that prices for items offered on Amazon's website were lower than prevailing market prices. The bureau determined that Amazon relied on its suppliers to provide list prices without verifying those prices were accurate. In this case, the savings claims were advertising on Amazon.ca, in Amazon mobile applications, and in other online advertisements, as well as in emails sent to customers. The bureau negotiated a $1-million AMP in this instance.
Finally, on April 24, 2017, the bureau announced it had reached a negotiated consent agreement with Hertz Canada Limited and Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group Canada, Inc. where both companies will pay a total of $1.25 million in an administrative monetary penalty, ensure their advertising complies with the law, and implement new procedures aimed at preventing advertising issues in the future.
The consent agreement is the result of an investigation where the bureau concluded that Hertz and Dollar Thrifty were advertising enticing low prices to attract consumers. However, those low prices were unattainable because mandatory fees were systemically added to those prices. The bureau concluded that the companies' price representations on their websites and other channels were misleading, and it was not sufficient for the companies to provide an estimate of the total price before consumers completed their reservation.
It is important to understand that, when negotiating an AMP or advocating in favour of one before the Competition Tribunal or the courts in relation to false or misleading advertising, the bureau considers a number of aggravating or mitigating factors that are listed in the Competition Act. Those factors include the reach of conduct within the relevant geographic market, the frequency and duration of the conduct, the vulnerability of the class of persons likely to be adversely affected, the effect on competition in the relevant market, the gross revenue from the sales affected by the conduct, the financial position of the person against whom the order is made, the history of compliance with the Competition Act by the persons against whom the order is made, and any other relevant factor.
In the interests of time, I will end my comments here.
I would be happy to answer any questions you have.
I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to appear here today.