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Internet Contracts Restrict Speech

Posted Oct 10, 2007 12:03 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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After several recent attempts by major companies to restrict speech they don't like, some folks are reading the fine print on their consumer contracts.

And a number do contain clauses that say companies can do so, reports the Los Angeles Times. Although apparently legal, since they don't involve government restriction of citizen speech, the contractual provisions are troubling, especially when they involve Internet communication, experts say. Because a small number of private companies provide cell phone and Web service, for example, they have a great deal of power to control consumer speech.

Verizon's contract, for instance, prohibits, along with pornography, and "cruel or racist" material, posting content that "damage[s] the name or reputation of Verizon, its parent, affiliates and subsidiaries, or any third parties," among other restrictions, notes columnist David Lazarus. Similarly, AT&T's contract says it may suspend or terminate service if customer conduct is "defamatory, fraudulent, obscene or deceptive," or "tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, Yahoo [AT&T's online partner] or their respective parents, affiliates and subsidiaries."

Although company representatives say such restrictions are necessary to prevent fraud and other clearly inappropriate conduct and aren't intended to censor ordinary speech, experts nonetheless worry.

"Not being able to speak your mind about something is contrary to public policy," says Frank Tuerkheimer, a University of Wisconsin law professor.

Adds Kurt Opsahl, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation: "If they're not going to use it, then why have it?"

As discussed in an earlier ABAJournal.com post, Verizon recently blocked an abortion-rights text message campaign, before admitting this had been a mistake.

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