When Halifax’s Beth Arsenault received a text from the Conservative Party of Canada’s “Sarah,” she wasn’t pleased.
The text, also sent to other Canadians, asks if the party could count on her support in the upcoming federal election.
“They should not be trying to drum up support sending out robot texts. It’s ridiculous,” Arsenault said, adding she feels it’s an invasion of privacy.
Arsenault texted back a scathing reply, but was surprised by Sarah’s response.
“That’s Great! To help us further can you confirm your postal code?” the text said.
21st-century voter outreach
Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservatives, confirmed his party is behind the robotexts. He said it’s using 21st-century technology for voter outreach.
Hann said the party started using texts in April as part of an awareness campaign about the national carbon tax and its impact on provinces where there was no federal-provincial agreement.
“It’s just about locating people who are open to our party and who may be open to voting for us in October,” Hann said, noting other parties have done the same thing in other provinces.
How did they get your number?
People who responded to the text and asked how the Conservatives got their number were told, “All phone numbers in Canada are available publicly through the Canadian Numbering [and Dialling] Plan.”
That’s managed by the Canadian Numbering Administrator, which provides phone numbers to the Canadian telecommunications industry. It provides new area codes when needed and the first three numbers that follow the area code.
These six digits can then be programmed into a robocaller, which then texts all of the possible number combinations using those six digits and the remaining four digits.
Exemptions for political parties
Under the law, the texts are allowed.
“Generally speaking, the Canada Elections Act permits automated messages (calls, texts, etc.) made by, or on behalf of, candidates or political parties,” Michelle LaLiberté, a spokesperson for the Commissioner of Canada Elections, wrote in an email.
She said texts and calls would only violate the act if they falsely claimed to originate from Elections Canada, or came from a political entity that attempted to mislead or prevent electors from voting.
‘I think the exemption is being misused’
Canada does have anti-spam legislation, but political parties are exempt from it. They are also exempt from the Do-Not-Call list.
Edward Antecol, general manager of the Canadian Numbering Administrator, told CBC News he has received a half-dozen complaints about the Conservatives’ robotexts in the past month.
He believes the exemption for political parties is not appropriate, and “is being misused given the amount of robocalling that’s going on.”
Nova Scotia PCs distance themselves
The Progressive Conservatives in Nova Scotia have also heard from people not happy about receiving the texts. Spokesperson Catherine Klimek said they haven’t tracked the numbers, but the complaints came via calls, emails and Facebook messages.
As a result, party leader Tim Houston posted his own “mock” text on his Facebook page on July 13, saying he’s not Sarah.
“I want to assure you that the Progressive Conservative Party of Nova Scotia is not behind those texts or calls you’re receiving,” said the post.
The message also said if his party is looking for people’s help, it would use a different approach.
“We wanted to clarify that it was the federal Conservative Party, not the provincial Progressive Conservative Party who was sending the texts, and assure members we were not sharing their personal information,” Klimek said.
Hann said he laughed when he read Houston’s post.
“It’s up to every party, provincial and federal, to determine what best works for them as far as doing voter outreach.”
He said the texts will continue for the next several months as the election nears.
“We’ve chosen to use it because it’s working well for us,” he said, adding if the responses they were getting were “universally panned, we wouldn’t be using it.”
To stop receiving texts, people can reply “Stop.” In the event people continue to get messages, they can complain to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommuniations Commissions (CRTC), which can issue fines.