AT&T swears it's not out to silence critics ... and I believe them

Big corporations are not always evil monsters with teams of even more evil lawyers standing ready to stick it to the little guy just because they can ... even though it often seems that way.

Sometimes these giants and their legal departments are merely trying to tip-toe through the same legal minefields that make life miserable for the rest of us.

Case in point: The AT&T terms of service language that has created such uproar among bloggers and other freedom-loving members of the Internet community. The most contentious phrase can be found in section 5.1 of this document and says that AT&T can pull the plug on anyone or anything that "tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries."

(Update: AT&T surrenders over ‘censorship’ tempest.)

Sure sounds unreasonable, and given AT&T's recent record of kowtowing to government snoops, you'd have to forgive people for considering such action within the realm and such language alarming. In fact, many were alarmed.

"AT&T users may want to think twice about commenting if they value their Internet service," suggested a submitter to Slashdot on an item headlined, "AT&T silences criticism in new terms of service."

"So AT&T customers aren't allowed to write/podcast/vlog critical things about AT&T, its billing practices, or its cooperation with illegal NSA wiretapping, on pain of having their connections disconnected," offered another at BoingBoing.

The matter was voted to the front page at Reddit, where the first comment offered suggests: "Back up your dissatisfaction with action. You don't like the way the company treats you, change service providers."

While some among the hundreds chiming in did make the point that such legalese is often just that - legalese - the vast majority of those commenting were perfectly willing to take at face value the notion that AT&T would not hesitate to disconnect any user showing the temerity to criticize AT&T.

AT&T insists this just isn't so, which if you think for a minute about the public relations consequences of such critic cleansing, makes perfectly good sense. My colleague Brad Reed, doing what reporters get paid to do, contacted the company for an explanation. Here's the statement he received back this morning before filing this story:

AT&T respects its subscribers' rights to voice their opinions and concerns over any matter they wish. 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.

This policy is not new and it's not unique to AT&T.

As a result of our 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.

Everyone who doesn't think AT&T should have the legal right to pull the plug on child porn peddlers raise your hand.

Now I wasn't born yesterday and fully appreciate that AT&T's explanation could prove to be a crock. Perhaps the company is as I type reaching for the off switch that will render dark a dozen pesky blogs or a mighty media outlet or two over little more than the airing of customer gripes.

Haven't seen it yet, though, and don't expect to any time soon. And until we do, it seems as though this flap may have been much ado about very little.

Of course, if it turns out that Verizon, my ISP, uses the same language in its terms, I reserve the right to amend these remarks.

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