If you’re displeased with the way a company treats you, you’re free to air your feelings in public, right? Not necessarily if you receive high-speed Internet access from AT&T Inc. or Verizon Communications Inc.
Buried deep within both companies’ voluminous service contracts is language that says your Net access can be terminated for any behavior that AT&T or Verizon believes might harm its “name or reputation,” or even the reputation of its business partners.
[…] But the provisions highlight yet again the danger to free expression when a relative handful of private companies serve as gatekeepers to information networks. Whether it’s a rock star ranting against President Bush or a disgruntled customer griping about shoddy service, how free is free speech in the digital era?
“Not being able to speak your mind about something is contrary to public policy,” said Frank Tuerkheimer, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin who focuses on Internet-related issues.
But it’s apparently not illegal. The 1st Amendment, Tuerkheimer pointed out, doesn’t apply to private entities.
You have to wade deep into AT&T’s 14,000-word service contract to find the one-line disclaimer in which the company reserves the right to slam the door on any Internet customer who might bruise the company’s feelings.