AT&T snowjob: We won't cut you off for criticizing us, but we won't put it in writing

This weekend, several sites blogged about AT&T's new terms of service, which reserve the right to terminate your Internet account for conduct that "tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries." In other words, AT&T's user-agreement gives them the right to cut you off if you criticize them.

Now, several sites have been contacted by an AT&T rep who has said that while AT&T's terms of service allow them to do this, they won't -- they'll only cut you off if you're looking at child porn or advocating race-violence.


If AT&T sincerely doesn't ever intend on cutting you off for criticizing them, they can amend their terms of service to say exactly that. It's not as though the legalese came off a mountain on two stone tablets and changing them counts as blasphemy.

AT&T's representatives can issue statements that say that they'll only cut you off if you turn out to be Josef Mengele, blogging from behind your secret identity in the Argentine campos, but unless they actually put it in writing, it means exactly squat. They wouldn't get you to "agree" to their Terms of Service if they didn't envision a time when they might use them. Link


  1. Has anyone ever tested onerous, non-negotiated TOS like these in court?

    Also, what’s to stop a customer from publishing a TOS of his own, in the Legal Notices section of a newspaper classified ads section, claiming his right to nullify any conditions of all other TOS he may not agree with? Wouldn’t this be equally valid?

  2. Well, Unusual Suspect, I’m no lawyer, but doesn’t a term of service agreement require the person making it to offer a service to which you agree on terms? I’m guessing that’s what is to stop them.

  3. But they don’t get a signature or even an “I Agree” click in many cases of unreasonable TOSsing. Even if the “I Agree” click is present, I bet it wouldn’t stand up, though.

    They typically have a nebulous “I agree to the TOS laid out somewhere” present when you sign up for a service.

  4. No, (I think) a TOS is just a contract, and requires all conditions of a contract to be met in order to be valid.

    My hypothetical customer’s legal notice would not likely be binding upon the service provider, but for a service provider to argue so in court would require that the service provider invalidates their own TOS in the process, don’t you think?

  5. You can opt-out of all of these contracts by choosing not to use this company’s service.

    If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. I’m sure that you can complain that a change to the TOS makes the previous agreement escapable. Meaning, you signed a contract on the old TOS and if you don’t agree with the new TOS you can leave and not pay the service fee.

    Unless that is in there too. At which point you would just have to complain more, I’m sure.

    Just remember to get everything in writing.

  6. You know, they really need to split AT&T up into a bunch of smaller, more competitive companies.

    Oh… wait…

  7. Dragonphyre, the problem is that almost everyone has clauses that are unreasonable. Who do you go to if all ISP’s have customer-unfriendly TOS’es? Magically invent a providerless, contractless internet connection? Come to think of it, that sounds great! I’d buy one!

  8. I am a bit confused. I thought that most TOS tend to allow the ISP to terminate your contract without really needing to specify a cause.

    Specifying that they will do so if you criticize AT&T seems to be the legal equivalent of twirling their moustache and saying “Har, Har, Har.”

  9. I thought the company only had to notify you of a change to the terms, not specifically get you to agree.

    I.e., if they sent you a letter with the new terms and you continued using the service, then you are considered to have consented to them.

    So, I don’t think publishing an article in the newspaper would work, but sending a registered letter to their HQ might.

    Of course, by “work” i mean you’d have a slim chance of winning an expensive lawsuit if your lucky enough to get a judge who doesn’t simply side with the corporate interests…

  10. AFAIK, virtually all ISPs have adopted “unreasonable” TOS, so there’s no option to “go elsewhere”.

    And every one I’ve seen includes a clause which says that they can change the TOS any time, as well as a clause which says that you can’t refuse any of their changes without being in violation of the TOS.

    But if a TOS is indeed a contract, clauses like this are unenforceable because they don’t withstand the usual tests for a valid contract (explicit consent, informed consent, reasonableness, notwithstanding individual rights under the law, not benefiting one party unusually etc.)

    The trick is funding the legal action to fight these clauses in court. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that the kind of TOS we’re seeing today is a result of big companies imagining their deep pockets make them immune to legal action.

  11. Their response seems to be, “Hey, you can trust us, we wouldn’t do that,” while reserving their right to do so. Sort of what you would expect them to do, in lieu of any real motivation to do otherwise, like a class action suit. (The main way these things get sorted out, I think, Unusual Suspect.)

    It reminds me of something, but I can’t out my finger on it… “just trust us”… “we wouldn’t ever abuse the power it gives us….”

    It’s on the tip of my tongue….

  12. “You can opt-out of all of these contracts by choosing not to use this company’s service.”


    This works only if (a) you have an option. I currently have no other option for high-speed internet than to use my cable provider. And (b) if the other folks aren’t doing it as well. Even I did have 2 or (gasp!) even 3 options, chances are their TOS’s are all chock full of such Draconian legal jargon. Sure, I could sign up with Slim Picken’s ISP and Live Bait, but I’m thinking that’s not really going to solve me problem if Slim is hand-forwarding every one of my packets.

    Finally, one of the problems mentioned elsewhere is that AT&T handles a lot of trunk lines, so even if I did go with Slim, he probably contracts with AT&T and I’m still skuh-rewed. Potentially.

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