Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Free speech could lead to online disconnect

David Lazarus
Consumer Confidential

October 10, 2007

If you're displeased with the way a company treats you, you're free to air your feelings in public, right? Not necessarily if you receive high-speed Internet access from AT&T Inc. or Verizon Communications Inc.

Buried deep within both companies' voluminous service contracts is language that says your Net access can be terminated for any behavior that AT&T or Verizon believes might harm its "name or reputation," or even the reputation of its business partners.

The language came to light the other day after AT&T sent notices to thousands of customers revising their service contracts as part of the company's merger last year with BellSouth.

It follows an incident last month in which Verizon Wireless blocked an abortion-rights group from sending text messages over the company's network, deeming the messages too controversial. The company subsequently backtracked from the decision.

Before that, AT&T was caught in August censoring political comments made by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder during a concert webcast. The company later said it had made a mistake.

AT&T and Verizon say they've never enforced the can't-criticize-us contract terms, which have been in place for years.

But the provisions highlight yet again the danger to free expression when a relative handful of private companies serve as gatekeepers to information networks. Whether it's a rock star ranting against President Bush or a disgruntled customer griping about shoddy service, how free is free speech in the digital era?

After Blogs Cry "Censorship," AT&T Says It Will Change Terms Of Service

getting roundly whiplashed for having a clause in their Terms of Service that could be interpreted as meaning they reserved the right to terminate the service of any customer who criticized them, AT&T DSL reached out to several blogs today with the following commitment to change their ToS:

"We are revising the terms of service to clarify our intent. The language in question will be revised to reflect AT&T's respect for our customers' right to express opinions and concerns over any matter they wish. And we will make clear that we do not terminate service because a customer expresses their opinion about AT&T."

We'll reserve judgment until the pixels dry. As of now, their ToS is still the same.

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