AT&T has rolled out new Terms of Service for its DSL service that leave plenty of room for interpretation. From our reading of it, in concert with several others, what we see is a ToS that attempts to give AT&T the right to disconnect its own customers who criticize the company on blogs or in other online settings.
In section 5 of its legal ToS, AT&T stipulates the following:
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.
Translation: "conduct" that AT&T "believes" "tends to damage" its name, or the name of its partners, can get you booted off the service. Note the use of "tends to damage": the language of the contract does not require any proof of any actual damage.
The story, which surfaced at the venerable Slashdot, has many people outraged and is being discussed as a prime example of why net neutrality is needed. I think that puts the cart before the horse, however. Here's why.
There's nothing which guarantees that what AT&T is doing here is either legal or what the company intends. This wouldn't be the first time that poorly thought-out legal language made it into a contract used by a major corporation. Why are we thinking it's an oversight? Simple: we believe that AT&T isn't misguided enough to expect to be able to squash First Amendment rights with a ToS contract without losing both face and their cozy legal status.
As an Internet service provider, AT&T itself is protected from lawsuits relating to the distribution of illegal materials online because they are excused from having to monitor and police their own networks from such activity. They are also protected against what their users say and do online. For instance, if I'm an AT&T customer and I posted damaging comments about Vodafone using AT&T's service, Vodafone can't go after AT&T just because they're my (fictional) ISP. Yet if AT&T begins to monitor and police its own network to protect its own corporate identity, the company will be setting itself up for lawsuits from parties looking for the same protections as AT&T grants itself. In this way, AT&T has to tread reasonably.
Even more important, should AT&T ever attempt to exercise this contractual "right," it will do far more harm to its "name" than the user(s) in question could have ever done… if what's shut down is just a regular user expressing typical criticism of a corporation. The backlash would be intense, to say the least.
We've requested clarification of the issue, but we'd also like to note that AT&T also reserves the right to disconnect users with "insecure" computers, and we've not heard of this happening, either. It may be nothing more than a toothless scare tactic, or it may be focused on something more insidious than mere criticism of the company. As it is currently worded, however, plenty of AT&T customers are concerned, if my inbox is any estimation.