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.