Friday, April 04, 2008

Your ISP Is Watching Closer Than You Think

Reading that fine print might reveal that you have fewer rights than you realize. recently published an Associated Press article that made a few interesting discoveries in the fine print that most of use usually agree to without reading.

By now everyone should be aware that ISPs such as Comcast ad ATT have been watching their users and usage of P2P/file-sharing programs. However you might not be aware that they can go even further, reading your emails, blocking you from sites they deem inappropriate. They even reserve the right to block traffic and, for any reason, cut off a service.

The Associated Press reviewed the "Acceptable Use Policies" and "Terms of Service" of the nation's 10 largest ISPs — in all, 117 pages of contracts that leave few rights for subscribers.

During their review they discovered that AT&T Inc. had a blanket provision that stated their right to block any activity that causes the company "to be viewed unfavorably by others."

Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University is quoted as saying, "The idea that they would ever invoke it and point to it is nuts, especially since their terms of service already say they can cut you off for any reason and give you a refund for the balance of the month."

According to the A.P. AT&T removed the "unfavorably by others" after being asked about the reason behind it. Most subscribers wouldn't know that unless they checked the contract word for word. Which more than likely most didn't even know it was there to begin with.

Common clauses of ISP contracts

ISPs can read your e-mail
Practically all ISPs reserve the right to read your e-mails and look at the sites you visit. Yes read your "Terms of service" carefully, their is more than likely a stipulation in there that says they can without warning, probable cause or wiretap order open and read your emails.

Some ISPs, like AT&T Inc., make clear that they do not read their subscriber's traffic as a matter of course, but also that they need little or no excuse to begin doing so.

ISPs can block Web sites you visit

While this may be a difficult task and can certainly be circumvented they do hold the right to try to block the sites you visit. Comcast for one reserves the right to block or remove traffic it deems "inappropriate, regardless of whether this material or its dissemination is unlawful." They can use their sole discretion as to what they feel is "inappropriate".

ISPs can shut you down for too much traffic

For cable ISPs, up to 500 households may be sharing the capacity on a single line, and a few traffic hogs can slow the whole neighborhood down. Most people see the effects of this during "peak usage hours" you'll notice slow downs in service when lots of people are at home using their connections.

But rather than saying publicly how much traffic is too much, some cable companies keep their caps secret, and simply warn offenders individually. If that doesn't work, they're kicked off. And trust me they aren't shy about removing and banning you.

While for the average user it might be difficult to reach these bandwidth caps users that are downloading large amounts of high-quality video from the Internet or downloading larges quantities of files might find themselves reaching that limit. With the advent of high-definition Internet video set-top boxes like the Apple TV and the Vudu this could be a much more common issue.

More bannable offenses

Off course Spam, pornography and hate related content are always going to be on the top of the list. However you might not know that you could be banned and your account removed for simply allowing others to connect and browse the net. There are terms in most contracts that stipulate you and members of your household are the only ones allowed to use your connection.

Another offense many people are unaware of is using your pc and their connection for hosting your own website, mail server or file server. Most ISPs block the ports needed to host your own sites or servers at home, however there are a few that don't. Either way in many cases ISPs have written in clauses that disallow using their bandwidth in that fashion.

The one thing all this does make clear is that we all need to learn to take our time and fully read the contracts we are agreeing to. I know I am a guilty party, I might browse through them but I never read them in full. Then once an issue arises I dig out the contracts and spend hours trying to understand the exact terms.

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