Skeptical Activism with Fishbarrel: A new tool for consumer protection

Being a science advocate and scientific skeptic can feel Sisyphean at times. The promoters of pseudoscience, whether it’s EMF crusaders, the anti-vaccination movement,  or alternative health purveyors appear indefatigable, and seem to outnumber the skeptics that challenge them. I follow a number of alternative medicine sites, out of professional and personal interest. It’s a quick way to keep up with the trends and fads in what can look like a parallel universe, where scientific evidence is optional. Seeing this continued stream of misleading health information can also be a bit dispiriting. Much of it goes unopposed and usually unchallenged. Sure, we can write a blog post, but that’s admittedly unlikely to make the purveyor change their message, or reach the intended audience. The next step is registering a complaint formally with organizations responsible for consumer protection and fair advertising. Some of the contributors to this blog have done just that, documenting their concerns about marketed products and services:

Making complaints is tedious and time consuming, and I don’t think Dianne, Kim or Erik would describe the process as user-friendly. But through the wonders of technology (and some innovative programming from a UK skeptic) this process has become much easier for Canadians. Before going over the process of submitting a complaint, it helps to understand the options available to Canadians. There are two organizations that oversee and regulate advertising in Canada: The Competition Bureau and Advertising Standards Canada.

Flagging advertising that violates advertising standards can be effective. In the United Kingdom, the Advertising Standards Authority recently issued a ruling on homeopathy in response to a huge number of complaints. It concluded the following:

  • homeopathy advertisements could discourage essential treatments for medical conditions such as depression, for which medical supervision should be sought
  • homeopathy advertisements misleadingly implied that homeopathic remedies could alleviate symptoms of depression
  • The Society of Homeopaths could not provide sufficient information to substantiate claims that homeopathy is effective for allergies, upper respiratory infections, diarrhea, chronic fatigue, ear infections, fibromyalgia, hay fever, influenza, premenstrual syndrome, rheumatic diseases and sinusitis.

Drawing regulator’s attention to advertisements that cannot be substantiated, or are misleading, can work. Here are the organizations charged with regulating advertising and trade standards in Canada:

The Competition Bureau

The  Competition Bureau administers the Competition Act, a federal statute that covers health fraud and offers other consumer protections. The key section of interest is related to false or misleading representations:

The Competition Act provides criminal and civil regimes to address false or misleading representations.

Section 52 of the Act is a criminal provision. It prohibits knowingly or recklessly making, or permitting the making of, a representation to the public, in any form whatever, that is false or misleading in a material respect. Under this provision, it is not necessary to demonstrate that any person was deceived or misled; that any member of the public to whom the representation was made was within Canada; or that the representation was made in a place to which the public had access. Subsection 52(4) directs that the general impression conveyed by a representation, as well as its literal meaning, be taken into account when determining whether or not the representation is false or misleading in a material respect.

There is even a detailed section on the methodology required to make a statement of effect:

The onus is on advertisers to ensure that claims about the performance, efficacy or length of life of their products have been substantiated by an “adequate and proper test.” The phrase “adequate and proper test” has not been defined by the legislation in order to preserve flexibility in an increasingly complex and highly technical field of expertise. The test must have been concluded before the representation is made. In other words, a subsequent substantiating test would not exempt an advertiser from liability under this provision.

It seems pretty clear that many of the claims made by alternative medicine providers and purveyors would be hard pressed to be substantiated against this standard. The specific regulation that skeptics can point to is Part VII.1, 74.01, Misrepresentations to public:

74.01 (1) A person engages in reviewable conduct who, for the purpose of promoting, directly or indirectly, the supply or use of a product or for the purpose of promoting, directly or indirectly, any business interest, by any means whatever,
(a) makes a representation to the public that is false or misleading in a material respect;\
(b) makes a representation to the public in the form of a statement, warranty or guarantee of the performance, efficacy or length of life of a product that is not based on an adequate and proper test thereof, the proof of which lies on the person making the representation; or
(c) makes a representation to the public in a form that purports to be
(i) a warranty or guarantee of a product, or
(ii) a promise to replace, maintain or repair an article or any part thereof or to repeat or continue a service until it has achieved a specified result,
if the form of purported warranty or guarantee or promise is materially misleading or if there is no reasonable prospect that it will be carried out.

Advertising Standards Canada

The other organization where complaints can be registered is Advertising Standards Canada, which is the self-regulatory group for Canadian advertising.  The ASC administers the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, which notes the following:

1. Accuracy and Clarity

In assessing the truthfulness and accuracy of a message, advertising claim or representation under Clause 1 of the Code the concern is not with the intent of the sender or precise legality of the presentation. Rather the focus is on the message, claim or representation as received or perceived, i.e. the general impression conveyed by the advertisement.

(a) Advertisements must not contain inaccurate, deceptive or otherwise misleading claims, statements, illustrations or representations, either direct or implied, with regard to any identified or identifiable product(s) or service(s).

(b) Advertisements must not omit relevant information in a manner that, in the result, is deceptive.

(c) All pertinent details of an advertised offer must be clearly and understandably stated.

(d) Disclaimers and asterisked or footnoted information must not contradict more prominent aspects of the message and should be located and presented in such a manner as to be clearly visible and/or audible.

(e) Both in principle and practice, all advertising claims and representations must be supportable. If the support on which an advertised claim or representation depends is test or survey data, such data must be reasonably competent and reliable, reflecting accepted principles of research design and execution that characterize the current state of the art. At the same time, however, such research should be economically and technically feasible, with due recognition of the various costs of doing business.

(f) The advertiser must be clearly identified in an advocacy advertisement.

But Section 8 is the most important and relevant to pseudoscience:

8. Professional or Scientific Claims

Advertisements must not distort the true meaning of statements made by professionals or scientific authorities. Advertising claims must not imply that they have a scientific basis that they do not truly possess. Any scientific, professional or authoritative claims or statements must be applicable to the Canadian context, unless otherwise clearly stated.

Reporting these website and providers can be a cumbersome process, and both the Canadian Competition Bureau as well as Advertising Standards Canada don’t make it easy for you to register concerns.

Until now.

Fishbarrel for Canadians

Fishbarrel is a Google Chrome plugin
that makes collecting and reporting bogus claims easy, shorting the time dramatically by capturing screenshots, formatting your complaint, and with one click, registering your complaint with the Competition Bureau or ASC, (or both).

This short video gives an overview of the process.

Once you’ve installed the plugin, you’ll see a rubber duck icon on the screen. You’ll need to register (it takes 30 seconds), enter your registration information, and other information to customize the application for Canada.

Fishbarrel Options

After you’ve set your options, registering a complaint takes seconds.  Move to the site of interest. Click to start capturing data. Highlight text that violates ASC or Competition Bureau standards, take screen shots (embedded in the application), and then return to the application to complete the text of the complaint. Customize the wording as you see appropriate:

Competition Bureau Canada Template

Finally, the application will take you to the ASC site or the Competition Bureau site to finish submitting your complaint. All the datafields will autopopulate, and an link will be attached that contains the relevant screenshots you captured.  I tried it with a website advertising a “natural” cancer treatment, and the entire process took about 15 minutes from beginning to end.

Please experiment with Fishbarrel and post your feedback in the comments.

Huge kudos to Simon Perry for creating Fishbarrel, and to Bad Science Watch for supporting the Canadian-ization of the application.

One Response to “Skeptical Activism with Fishbarrel: A new tool for consumer protection”

  1. Shawn Wilson says:

    I’ve used it to complain about a homeopathic kit to the Company Bureau and ASC. I got a form letter from the Comp Bureau saying they were busy, so don’t follow up on everything. The ASC asked me to snail mail permission to forward my complaint to the Marketed Health Products Directorate at Health Canada.

    A month later, I got a reply saying they’re looking into it. A month after that, they said they found the webpage I cited contravened the Food and Drugs Act, section 9(1), which relates to false, misleading or deceptive advertising. They also said it violates section 3(1), which makes it a no-no to direct advertising at consumers which claims product can treat, prevent or cure certain serious diseases. Though I guess now prevention claims are allowed. They then said they’d take steps to remedy it. That was a month ago. The webpage is still up, but I’m still cautiously optimistic.

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  • Scott Gavura

    Scott is passionate about improving the way drugs are used. A pharmacist by background, Scott has a professional interest in improving the cost-effective use of drugs at the population level, while helping consumers make more informed decisions about their health. He blogs about pharmacy practice and questionable science at Science-Based Pharmacy and Science-Based Medicine. All views expressed by Scott are his personal views alone, and do not represent the opinions of any current or former employers, or any organizations or associations that he may be affiliated with. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.