AT&T: Say bad things about us and we’ll cancel your Internets

By Martin Bosworth

Slashdot broke the news on Saturday that AT&T’s updated terms of service for its high-speed Internet packages essentially forbid you from criticizing the company on pain of cancellation. The full terms of service are here, and here’s the offending passage highlighted, courtesy of Ars Technica:

AT&T may immediately terminate or suspend all or a portion of your Service, any Member ID, electronic mail address, IP address, Universal Resource Locator or domain name used by you, without notice, for conduct that AT&T believes (a) violates the Acceptable Use Policy; (b) constitutes a violation of any law, regulation or tariff (including, without limitation, copyright and intellectual property laws) or a violation of these TOS, or any applicable policies or guidelines, or (c) tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries.

This is the exact kind of overbroad legalese that gets companies in trouble in ways they probably never thought of. If I am an AT&T subscriber, for example, and I post derogatory comments about AT&T on a site they own, does this give them leave to terminate my service? What if I post or send a complaint about AT&T to a complaint site or consumer news site, like ConsumerAffairs.Com (whom I write for), and they publish said complaint? Am I liable if I was using my AT&T ISP while writing said complaint? What if I did so while using my laptop at a Wi-Fi hotspot? The mind boggles.

This goes well beyond the already-vast power companies exert over customers through TOS, EULAs, and other such agreements. This isn’t pointed at a customer who’s using AT&T’s service to download copyrighted content, bandwith hog, or hack other users–no, this is deliberately designed to punish customers simply for speaking out against the company. You wouldn’t tolerate that from the government, so why should you tolerate it from a corporation? I think this Ars commenter has it right:

This is another step in the codification of corporate behavior of the every day lives of Americans. Increasingly, we are being forced to behave in private as we would at work. This simply won’t work. I do not serve the board of directors as a paying customer of a system. What AT&T is doing might not be a violation of the letter of the law, but it certainly is a raping of the spirit of free speech and a free society. Corporations are slowly becoming proxies for governments to do things governments couldn’t otherwise do.

What amazes me about this is the sheer gall with which AT&T thought it could get away with such an egregious jab in the eye to its customers. The company has already gotten itself in hot water over censoring Pearl Jam for criticizing Bush–are they going to claim this was a “mistake” or “glitch” as well? And coming on the heels of Verizon’s about-face after blocking text messages from NARAL, does AT&T really think it’ll be able to defend or justify this kind of abrogation of its customers’ rights without some kind of backlash?

Needless to say, this is yet another reason why we need net neutrality as codified law. AT&T’s lawyers may have written this just to enforce its rules against hate sites, spammers, and such, but they’ve written it so broadly that it could easily be interpreted as a “chiller” against legitimate criticism of a company. Not to mention that this is the same company that gleefully assisted the NSA in spying on Americans without warrants or oversight for years. Like I said, what utter gall.

Corporations do not have the right to control what you say or think any more than governments do, and the idea that we can excuse abrogations of these rights if they come from business is a slippery slope indeed.

28 replies »

  1. I’ll remember this the next time I hear someone argue that commercial speech ought to be protected speech.

    Are these people out of the f’ing minds?

  2. I stopped doing biz with AT&T some time ago and hope to never cross paths with them again, but this simply boggles the mind.

    I’ve suggested before that if we were writing a new Constitution right now, we’d need to assure than corporations were prevented from the same kinds of abuses that the Framers erected against government intrusion into our lives. It’s like AT&T is trying to prove my point.

  3. Listen serfs, get back to fields. No uprising or we’ll cut your rations of gruel. We’ll set the terms and you’ll damn well love it. Got that? 😉

    Oh and btw, don’t you dare look at the OpenMoko phone. We have the supersweet iPhone which is a bargain at whatever price we set with a two-year contract of our wonderful service.

    Now get back to work.


  4. The constitution protects citizens. Corporations are not people. They should have no rights.

  5. It’ll be interesting to watch the reaction of the public to this news, which saddens me mostly because it is indicative of the society we have become. In my ideal world, no company would dare to formulate such policies, and the response to any similarly outrageous ideas would be swift from the from common consumer on the street, right on up to the policy makers in governments. Consumers have to ask themselves if such companies deserve one cent of their hard earned dollars, on sheer principle alone.

  6. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if every single AT&T subscriber found a way to post insulting words about the company on the same day.

  7. “The constitution protects citizens. Corporations are not people. They should have no rights.”

    Measure T Bans Corporate Campaign Financing

    In 2006, Humboldt County, California, became the latest, and largest, jurisdiction to abolish the legal doctrine known as

  8. I wonder if they could envoke this clause if someone filed a complaint with the public utilities commission, FCC or whatever agency?

  9. I honestly don’t care about the “phone” part, just the mobile Internet part. Maybe that helps? I will look at the enV, though. Thanks.

  10. “What amazes me about this is the sheer gall with which AT&T thought it could get away with such an egregious jab in the eye to its customers.”…

    I am afraid they may… even ‘net savvy’ people don’t know what this company is up to – it’s your work that’s getting this news out!

    Time to write a EULAgy for all these TOS’s, EULAS, and contracts that are designed to be so boring to read that the average consumer signs them just to get ‘er done and over with.

    About the Verizon Voyager – Cool. I never thought I’d be cheering on a megacorp, but it’s good to know they’re not letting AT&T take over the world without a fight. Plus, Verizon has the AC/DC catalog

  11. AT&T is total garbage!! They promissed to install my DSL line with in two days, and give me a $50.00 rebate. The rebate never came in. The technician came out two weeks late, then left.

    When I called At&t for the 5th time after being put on hold forever. I was told that the technician said that “we weren’t ready for the service”

    I told her exactly what happened. Then she spoke with the technician, she called me back and told me that she would send someone else. Meanwhile I am using dial-up where they charge a fortune. Then they cut my service. (keep in mind that I was forced to use dial-up because my DSL was never installed)
    When I tried to call At&T they would hang up on me, put me on hold for over an hour at a time. I finally called comcast, they came out when they said they would and it cost me $99/mo. At&t has cost me over $500.00 (so far and no service still) I am currently on the phone with them now, they already hung up on me once. I plan on filing a complaint with consumer services tomorrow.