The Non-Mutability of Contracts

I’ve recently moved to a new location near Davis Square in Somerville, quite close to a number of my favourite haunts (Diesel Cafe (flash warning), Someday Cafe, and McIntyre and Moore (another flash warning, and for the main navigation as well!)). My new place apartment didn’t have network access, and for the first day or so it was okay, as there was an open wireless spot nearby. That disappeared by my second day (even though it had been working fine for months, according to my new apartmentmate). So the next few days were without network access, which I have to say was quite a nice change: coming home from work and not constantly checking my e-mail, or reading web pages, a relief from the constant connectivity of the Lab. Yet I realized that as much as I enjoyed the absence from the wired world, I knew that I required it because of being at the Lab.

Thus came my search for new broadband options, limited to simply cable or DSL. I quickly dismissed cable access, as it would cost over $40 a month, whereas DSL was only $20/mo. from…Verizon.

Yes, I have decided to sign up for a company whose business practices I despise. Yet there are not really any other options (I know that I could choose a provider like Covad, yet I would still need local access from Verizon).

Unlike most other times when I do these things, I actually read (skimmed) through their terms of service, finding some rather disturbing passages:

2. Verizon reserves the right to deny Service to you, or immediately to terminate your Service for material breach, if your use of the Service or your use of an alias or the aliases of additional users on your account, whether explicitly or implicitly, and in the sole discretion of Verizon: … (d) is objectionable for any reason; …

“Objectionable for any reason”? This of course means that they could terminate my account for posting political views that they do not agree with, even if they are legal.

3. You may NOT use the Service as follows: … (j) to damage the name or reputation of Verizon, its parent, affiliates and subsidiaries, or any third parties; …

So, once I actually have DSL access at home, the posting of this post might be cause for me to be in violation of Verizon’s acceptable use policy (AUP).

This is all part of a contact that I must “sign” before receiving their service.

There was a time when contracts were made between people sitting across of the table; yes, it was formally between the person and the company, but the company was represented by a person whom you could see, touch, and talk to. Now my contract is between myself and a system, an agent to which I can talk, but which will not talk back to me. Before, at least in my limited understanding of this, if I did not like the terms of the contract, I could discuss them with the person (working on behalf of the company) and come to some agreement about changing the disputed items. Now, I have no chance to offer new options, to suggest ways that the contract might be better for me, as the customer. (Isn’t it sad that that last sentence feels absurd in today’s climate?)

When did contracts become something that we couldn’t negotiate over, when they became as if chiseled in rock? Yet that rock is merely an artifice, as the company has access to its materiality and can re-form it anytime it wants. We are given commandments to follow; their truth is taken for granted. We must accept on faith the words that the company provides to us, assuming (in our naïve view) that they cannot be changed. We have no recourse, except writing posts such as this (which might, in a draconian instance, cause us to be in breach of the contract we do not agree with).

Wikis and collaborative software are not the answer to all of these problems, but I wonder how a group of people would modify the AUP to fit the needs of the user, while trying to balance business and statutory requirements.

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