An ISP that listens to its customers?

Network World, 03/08/99

Getting your Internet service via
cable TV is good stuff. I've been
getting Internet connectivity at my
house through MediaOne for many years and can report fast,
troublefree service.

But some people think there are reasons I should not be that happy
with what I have. For example, there have been some privacy worries
about this type of Internet access and about cable companies in
general. The stories that came out a week or so ago about
Tele-Communications, Inc.'s (TCI) @Home-provided Internet service
seemed to confirm the worst fears that anyone could have about the
intentions of the cable TV companies.

On Feb. 22, reported that TCI @Home had
e-mailed its subscribers a 9,000-word "take it or leave it" new
subscriber agreement. The agreement was reported to have told TCI
@Home's 40,000 customers that whether they liked it or not, TCI was
going to collect information on their use of the 'Net and then sell that
information to advertisers.

The agreement also seemed to prohibit customers from using the
service to check their e-mail back at the office or from using secure IP
tunneling protocols. If a customer was not willing to sign the
agreement, he had to immediately stop using the service. (This is not
quite the "harmony of opinion" that my dictionary uses to define

The issue here had nothing to do with the fact that the Internet
connectivity was being provided over a cable TV facility. This was the
case of an ISP trying to treat its customers like chattel. The customers
were seen as useful only for their monthly payments and their surfing
habits, which could be tracked for advertisers, who in turn could send
more spam to the customers.

But the picture was not quite so clear, or bleak. I talked to an @Home
spokesman and discovered there had been a number of
misinterpretations of the subscriber agreement - something that was
easy to do because it was written by lawyers for lawyers and not for
normal humans to read. In addition, TCI and @Home did listen to
their customers and have changed their minds about some of the

@Home offers two types of ISP service: consumer and commercial.
The agreement was trying to say that users of the consumer service
could not run a business from their house over the consumer service.
TCI had been less than clear on the implications of this in the
agreement, but the spokesman assured me that customers could check
their e-mail, even through encrypting tunnels.

The spokesman also said that TCI only provides aggregate, not
individual data, about its customers to others. A new agreement,
written in English rather than in lawyer language, is on its way. It's
good to see a company respond thoughtfully to customer reactions.

Disclaimer: Harvard has been listening, and occasionally hearing, for
more than 360 years. But the above are my notes.