Criticize Your ISP & Lose Your Service

The LA Times has an interesting column called Free speech could lead to online disconnect. I grabbed a big chunk of it for your review as I think that it is important.

Essentially it says that AT&T and Verizon’s DSL service contracts contain a clause that could impact your ability to criticize them.

“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?

“Not being able to speak your mind about something is contrary to public policy,” said Frank Tuerkheimer, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin who focuses on Internet-related issues.

But it’s apparently not illegal. The 1st Amendment, Tuerkheimer pointed out, doesn’t apply to private entities.

You have to wade deep into AT&T’s 14,000-word service contract to find the one-line disclaimer in which the company reserves the right to slam the door on any Internet customer who might bruise the company’s feelings.

Along with specifying behavior that is “defamatory, fraudulent, obscene or deceptive,” the contract says service may be suspended or terminated for any behavior that “tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, Yahoo [AT&T’s online partner] or their respective parents, affiliates and subsidiaries.”

In Verizon’s case, you have to make it all the way through the company’s 10,000-word contract to an attached document laying out the “acceptable use policy.”

This is where customers are informed that, among other things, they aren’t allowed to post material online that’s “obscene, indecent, pornographic, sadistic, cruel or racist in content, or of a sexually explicit or graphic nature; or which espouses, promotes or incites bigotry, hatred or racism.”

It’s also where the company says customers are similarly crossing the line if they “damage the name or reputation of Verizon, its parent, affiliates and subsidiaries, or any third parties.”

Jon Davies, a Verizon spokesman, said the language was there “to stop people from setting up websites that look like Verizon’s” or engaging in other ploys frequently used by scammers to con people into revealing personal info, including Social Security and credit card numbers.”

The First amendment is frequently misunderstood by many who think that it covers all speech. As we have discussed here before that is not true. There are limits on your speech, you cannot yell fire in a theater, advocate the violent overthrow of the government etc.

As the law professor points out it also does not apply to private entities. However given what these particular entities do I wonder if this doesn’t necessitate a change or amendment of the amendment.