Award Winning Blog

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Empirical Evidence of Net Bias—Now What? (part two)

ISPs now acknowledge that they may meddle with subscribers’ traffic streams, but only to “manage” and “shape” traffic. ISPs typically reserve the option for such meddling in their contract with subscribers. Should you ever take the time to read this document, and a second documents about “Acceptable Use” you will see language that does reserve to the ISP the right to manage their network, ostensibly to optimize it for the benefit of subscribers. The subscriber agreement also attempts to foreclose litigation as an option by stating that subscribers can only seek arbitration to settle any grievance.
In reality the subscriber contract constitutes a unilateral, non-negotiable contract of adhesion, i.e., a “take it or leave” it proposition. In a truly competitive world, disgruntled subscribers could “vote” with their feet and dollars by taking their business elsewhere. But contrary to the FCC’s fantasy statistical reports about double digit service alternatives in most zip codes, consumers have limited options. Taking ones business from DSL to cable modem would not solve the problem if all carriers—through collusion or “conscious parallelism” had the same network management contractual language.
Because the FCC considers ISPs information service providers, the Commission offers no traditional consumer safeguards applicable to telecommunications service providers under Title II of the Communications Act., ISPs must use contracts in lieu of filed tariffs. However, ISP contracts must pass muster with general law and equity principles regarding the fairness of the terms, consumer protection and fraud. In other words, ISPs cannot unilaterally set any terms and conditions and have them stick.
While the FCC may have limited jurisdiction to examine ISP contracts, state and federal courts can lawfully assess whether an ISP has lawfully interpreted the terms of the contract it created and more broadly whether the agreement violates the court’s sense of fairness. In light of the FCC’s deregulation of information service providers, the Commission cannot readily claim that it should preempt judicial review because it still has “primary” jurisdiction to resolve fairness and consumer protection issues.
We may soon see an onslaught of individual and class action law suits against ISPs on grounds that they have not complied with the clear language of their service agreements. For example ISPs have cut off or throttled service to customers for using too much network resources despite an agreement that offers unlimited and unmetered “all you can eat” service. Peer-to-peer customers experience artificial network congestion—a hard thing to prove—may claim that the ISP has violated the service agreement.
A court may serve as the forum for assessing whether an ISP’s reserve right to manage its network includes preemptive strategies that mimic network congestion even when actual traffic conditions do not necessitate network conservation tactics.

1 comment:

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