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Listening going on?

by Scott Bradner

Getting your Internet service via cable TV is good stuff. I've been getting the Internet connectivity at my house through MediaOne for many years and can report fast, trouble-free service. But some people think there are reasons I should not be all that happy with what I have. For example, there have been some privacy worries about this type of Internet access and about cable companies in general. The stories that came out a week or so ago about TCI's @Home-provided Internet service seemed to confirm the worst fears that anyone could have about the intentions of the cable TV companies.

On February 22nd reported that TCI@Home had emailed its subscribers a 9,000-word take-it or leave-it new subscriber agreement. The agreement was reported to tell TCI@Home's 40,000 customers that whether they liked it or not, TCI was going collect information on their use of the net and then sell that information to advertisers. The agreement also seemed to prohibit customers from using the service to check their email back at the office or from using secure IP tunneling protocols. If a customer was not willing to agree to the agreement they had to immediately stop using the service. (This is not quite the "harmony of opinion" that my dictionary uses to define "agreement".)

The issue here had nothing to do with the fact the Internet connectivity was being provided over a cable TV facility. This was the case of an Internet service provider seeming trying to treat their customers as chattel, only useful for their monthly payments and their surfing habits so that TCI@Home could sell the information to advertisers so the customers will get even more spam.

But the picture was not quite so clear, or bleak, a few days later. I talked to an @Home spokesman and found out that there had been a number of misinterpretations of the subscriber agreement, something that was easy to do since it was written by lawyers for lawyers and not for normal humans to read. In addition, TCI and @Home did listen to their customers and changed their mind about some of the provisions.

@Home offers two types of ISP service, consumer and commercial. The agreement was trying to say that users of the consumer service could not run a business out of their house over it. TCI had been less than clear on the implications of this in the agreement but the spokesman assured me that customers could check their email, even through encrypting tunnels and that TCI only provided aggregate, not individual, data about their customers to others. A new agreement, written in English rather than in lawyer, is on its way. Its good to see a company react thoughtfully to customer reactions.


disclaimer: Harvard has been listening, and occasionally hearing, for over 360 years, but the above are my notes.