AT&T's new service agreement for its Internet offerings contains an unpleasant wrinkle for subscribers--the telecom giant has given itself the right to cancel customers' service for criticizing the company. But AT&T defends the policy, which it says is not new and not unique to AT&T.

In Section 5 of the company's new terms of service is a clause that empowers the company to cancel a subscriber's service if their conduct "tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries."

The broad sweep of the clause could conceivably be used against anyone who openly criticizes AT&T, whether through posting complaints on their own blog, Web site, or consumer news sites such as ConsumerAffairs.com.

Readers at tech news site Slashdot, where the story was broken, called the change an example of "corporate censorship." AT&T said it is anything but that.

"AT&T respects its subscribers rights to voice their opinions and concerns over any matter they wish," AT&T spokesman Brad Mays said. "However, we retain the right to disassociate ourselves from websites and messages explicitly advocating violence, or any message that poses a threat to children (e.g. child pornography or exploitation).

"We do not terminate customer service solely because a customer speaks negatively about AT&T;," Mays said.

Mays said the new language resulted from recent mergers.

"We have simply incorporated language from the AT&T; Yahoo! High Speed Internet Terms of Service into the Terms of Service for our legacy Worldnet and BellSouth customers. The language is consistent with that of previous documents for those companies, and is equally consistent with former AT&T and its legacy companies policies," he said.

Slashed by Slashdot

One Slashdot reader commented, "AT&T cooperates in wholesale spying on the American public without a warrant, then goes back to Congress and asks for immunity from lawsuits. Now they slip a "no criticize" clause in their user agreement?"

Phone companies are supposed to deliver our messages, not censor them, said Ben Scott of Free Press. If the phone company cant tell you what to say on a phone call, then they shouldnt be able to tell you what to say in a text message, an e-mail, or anywhere else."

Companies often use terms of service (TOS) or end-user license agreements (EULAs) to bind customers to terms they might not otherwise have agreed to, gambling that the average person won't understand the complex legal language, or have time to dig deep enough to cite objectionable elements of the agreement.

Verizon, for example, inserts into its terms of service the right to "change, limit, terminate, modify at any time, temporarily or permanently cease to provide the Service or any part thereof to any user or group of users, without prior notice and for any reason or no reason."

Verizon's John Czwartacki defended the language in the TOS as targeting scammers and phishers that may use the Verizon brand to deceive customers.

"For the record, this is language thats been in our Acceptable Use Policy for nearly a decade," Czwartacki said. "If you browse any public forum...its obvious that we do not disconnect the service of people who criticize us or our services."

Harsh spotlight

The debate over net neutrality has put the actions of both AT&T and Verizon under a harsh spotlight.

Supporters of net neutrality claim that without laws that mandate equal access to Internet content for all users, telecom companies could use their market power to block access to Web sites or content they did not favor, or could prioritize access to their own sites over others.

Both companies oppose codifying net neutrality principles into law, and both have claimed that they would not block Web sites or control access to content.

But AT&T came under fire for censoring Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, for making remarks critical of President Bush during a live Webcast. The company claimed the incident was a one-time glitch, but other examples of political remarks being censored quickly came to light.

And Verizon was soundly criticized for blocking access to text messages sent by abortion rights group NARAL, which it deemed "controversial" and "unsavory." The company quickly reversed its policy and blamed the incident on an "incorrect interpretation" of corporate policies.

The censorship policies of AT&T and Verizon are what we can expect to see time and again with these corporations as gatekeepers, said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press. "We need to put in place laws that protect our right to speak out on the Internet, on cell phones everywhere.