Hey, at&t: Were your PR people all on vacation today?

This morning, tech websites and marketing blogs were abuzz with outrage over this portion of at&t’s latest terms of service:

“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 (c) tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries.”

A whole lot of folks mistakenly took this as at&t threatening to cut your service if you talked trash about them. (It got picked up by several major news networks in the same context as well.) Within hours, there was talk of boycotts. at&t looked well on its way to having to deal with a damaging PR disaster (for starters).

For the better part of the day, I also wondered what at&t was thinking, taking such a totalitarian censorship stance. (Even Apple wouldn’t be bold enough to take things this far.) I spent the better part of the hour I wasted sort of watching episode 2 of The Bionic Woman thinking about clever analogies to at&t‘s alleged Guestapo tactics. I imagined Volkswagen barring drivers from ever buying one of their cars again if they caught them complaining about their cars on their blog or facebook or myspace. I imagined Apple doing the same thing with its products. Delta airlines putting you on a no-flight list for emailing friends about a bad experience with their airline. Starbucks banning you from from their stores for getting caught recommending Lava Java to co-workers.

“Please step away from the counter and slowly place the scone on the ground, sir.”

No company would do this… except maybe this guy.

So I started doing a bit of research on the subject, because… at&t trying to control what customers say about them in this way didn’t make much sense. It didn’t take me long to find this on the Ars Technica blog:

An AT&T spokesperson tells Ars Technica that the company has no interest in engaging in censorship but stopped short of saying that AT&T could not in fact exercise its ability to do so.

“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 web sites 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.”

Well, duh. Too bad at&t‘s PR peeps didn’t unleash holy jihad on the scuttlebutt sooner. It’s way too late on the East Coast now, and the story is still- as I write this post – gaining traction across middle America.

Evidently, today’s events indicated that at&t‘s PR machine either doesn’t have internet access, or didn’t have a crisis plan in place for when stuff like this happens.

The term “asleep at the wheel” comes to mind… and that isn’t good.


Even though this will blow over in a few days at the most, it is good to know that a) somebody is keeping tabs on potential corporate shenanigans (even if sometimes they jump the gun a little bit), and that b) outrage over the possibility of a corporation’s abuse of power still spreads across all media so quickly. (We haven’t become completely complacent after all.)

Have a great Thursday, everyone. 🙂