Companies seem to defy logic more often than even the most unstable individual. Take AT&T, for example. They’re in the business of providing paying customers with the ability to communicate. They offer phone, mobile phone, and a bunch of Internet services. Further, they’re a company based in the United States, a country that prides itself on great freedom of expression. This freedom is important enough to be enshrined in their constitution.

Despite this admirable heritage, AT&T changed their DSL customer terms of service agreement recently. As posted on Ars Technica, the interesting part of the new agreement appears in section 5:

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 © tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries.

The emphasis is mine. It seems AT&T wants no competition in ruining their own reputation. If you are an AT&T customer and criticise them in any way, whether by email, blog, instant message, forum, newsgroup, or any other way I haven’t thought of, they claim the right to cut you off without notice. Your Internet connection? Gone. Your email address? Gone. The messages in your mailbox? Gone. Your web site? Gone.

And why? Because you have written something about the company they didn’t care for. It doesn’t have to be libellous or in anyway illegal. They don’t need any proof. All they need to do is decide something you’ve written might damage their name or reputation. How’s that for ambiguous?

It seems AT&T has not heard of the Streisand effect. According to the Wikipedia, “The Streisand effect is a term used to describe a phenomenon on the Internet where an attempt to censor or remove a certain piece of information backfires and the information receives extensive publicity on the Internet, often widely mirrored, or distributed on file-sharing networks in a short period of time.”

AT&T is certainly going to be hit by the effect the first time they cut someone off. As an appetizer however, the news about the terms of service change hit the Internet last week and the result is outrage. Certainly they hoped the change would go unnoticed. No such luck. This will be a murmur compared to the first time they take advantage of the addition and terminate someone’s service. What the customer wrote to trigger AT&T’s action will receive ten times the attention it would have otherwise.

Under their revised terms of service, they should immediately disconnect themselves from their own network. I can’t imagine what anyone could say to damage their reputation more than they have. All it will take to bring in the mainstream media is invoking the action described.

What I’m dying to find out is if they’d dare to cut you off if you criticized them without using their services. Say you wrote a blog posting critical of AT&T, but you did so using the hotspot at Starbucks. For the sake of argument, let’s assume AT&T isn’t Starbucks’ Internet service provider. Would they still cut you off? If they really want to alienate their customers, this would be the quickest (and most entertaining!) way.

Their slogan “Your World. Delivered,” sounds nice, but outside of the marketing department, the company’s actions show little regard for their customers.