Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Shut up...

...or they'll cut you off. Or at least, that's what AT&T and Verizon are permitted to do under the standard form contract they require each of their customers to sign:

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.

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."

In other words, their contracts permit them to terminate your service if say, you use your internet to post rants about either of the companies to your blog. Of course both companies deny they'd do such a thing:

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.

Verizon's contract, however, explicitly states elsewhere that such behavior can result in termination of service. So it would appear that the "name or reputation" clause is asserting a broader prerogative on Verizon's part.

Davies said he understood that some people might view the language as Verizon claiming a right to censor customers' opinions, particularly when such opinions might trample on Verizon's good name.

"But whether or not it's interpreted that way is irrelevant," he said, "because we've never used it that way. Actions speak louder than words."

In case you're wondering, that's not exactly a legal principle. The one that provides true guidance in cases like this is that people are obligated to abide by contracts they willingly sign, and that you're not entitled to complain about a contract you signed with your eyes open and without any fraud or duress.

Of course, the problem with this sort of contract-also known as a contract of adhesion-is that you don't really get the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the contract. Verizon or AT&T will hand you a contract, and if you want the service, you'll agree to the terms (this is true whether you're buying home phone service, internet service, cellular service, etc.) If you don't believe that this is true, try asking for a copy of the service agreement, then edit out or change the language in the service agreement and then send it back to them for their approval before you sign up.

As the writer notes, the First Amendment does not apply to private entities, so you are not free to express yourself in any manner you see fit while utilizing your AT&T or Verizon service. However, State legislatures and Congress have great authority to regulate such contracts. That they don't has more to do with the millions big companies pay their lobbyists and the fact that legal scholars fascinated with economic efficiency dominate the jurisprudence of contracts (but that's a story for another post.)

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