AT&T makes moves against free Internet, consumer rights

By Luke Wilusz

Internet giant AT&T Inc. released an updated version of its terms of service on March 30 that effectively gives the corporation increased power to take advantage of consumers and charge them more while stripping those same people of their legal rights. Such action is not surprising after Congress refused to fund network neutrality legislation in February, leaving Internet service providers free to restrict Internet access more or less at their discretion.

The new terms of service impose monthly data caps of 150 GB for DSL users and 250 GB for subscribers of its U-Verse service, with the intention of slapping violators with overage charges if they use more than their allotted amount of data in a month. While AT&T argues most average users won’t be affected by these caps, households with several computers or households that frequently use data-heavy video streaming services, such as Netflix or Hulu, could easily exceed those allowances. If consumers are paying for Internet service each month, they should be able to use as much data as they want or need to in the course of their day-to-day lives.

While AT&T claimed the usage caps are meant to reduce network congestion, there’s no way to prove that is true. While they may reduce consumers’ total monthly data usage, they won’t have any effect on people using large amounts of bandwidth during busy periods. With the company’s vested interest in broadcast TV services, it’s more likely the caps are meant to punish people in a roundabout way for using services like Netflix.

As if the usage caps and overage fees associated with them weren’t enough, some users have taken to blogs and online forums to complain that AT&T’s measurement of their data usage isn’t even accurate. One user said AT&T has, at times, under-reported his usage by as much as 91 percent and over-reported it at other times by as much as 4,700 percent compared to the usage logs on his router. If AT&T is going to be nickel-and-diming consumers regarding data usage, the company should, at the very least, learn how to keep track of it. I don’t let gas station attendants guess how much fuel I’m pumping into my car and charge me accordingly, and I’d like to be able to apply similar standards to my ISP.

Further examination of the new terms reveals authoritarian abuses of power on AT&T’s part. The corporation reserves the right to discontinue broadband service and force consumers to upgrade to a more expensive U-Verse package at its discretion. The company also takes measures to stifle consumers’ abilities to stand up for themselves.

However, unhappy users should take caution when venting to customer service representatives. Under the new terms, AT&T also reserves the right to cut off service for “repeatedly contacting our customer service representatives for reasons that do not pertain to our provisioning, maintenance, repair or general servicing of your high speed Internet access service after you have been asked to stop such conduct.” In other words, it plans to punish anyone with the tenacity to complain about being mistreated after it asks them not to.

Furthermore, the new terms prohibit U-Verse subscribers from participating in class-action lawsuits against AT&T and require all disputes to be settled by third-party arbitrators chosen by the corporation. These arbitrators tend to rule in favor of their corporate clients rather than consumers with alarming regularity—up to 94 percent of the time, according to a report released by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen in 2007.

Courts have ruled several times that such fine-print measures prohibiting consumers from taking part in class-action suits are illegal, and the Supreme Court is set to make a decision in a case involving the issue by June. With any luck, the ruling will force AT&T to remove at least one of the draconian restrictions from its new terms of service.

Such abuses and monopolistic behavior from ISPs and the broader media conglomerates they often belong to are becoming more common every day. The federal government is doing very little to restrict them, and the corporations are unlikely to regulate themselves for the good of American consumers. Unless Congress and the Federal Communications Commission work to develop strong net neutrality laws to keep these companies in check, consumers can expect to see more of their rights periodically sacrificed for the good of corporate America.