Consumer Watch

SAN FRANCISCO (03/03/2000) - I've been told I'm a Web addict. I've even been called a geek. But I was still taken aback when my Internet service provider recently suggested that the amount of time I spend online just isn't normal.

That's right--a representative of my ISP e-mailed me to express concern about my heavy use of the service, saying, "We are reviewing accounts with extraordinarily high usage levels to insure that they comply with [our] terms of service."

It was news to me that I might be breaking any rules--I had thought my account offered unlimited access. The e-mail suggested that I read my terms-of-service agreement. Sure enough, the TOS document clearly stated that continuous usage, running a Web server, and an impressive range of other activities are prohibited.

I e-mailed back, explaining that I wasn't running a server or doing anything else nefarious--I'd just been working too much lately. (Even I was a bit shocked to see my ISP's tally of over 300 online hours during one billing period.) The ISP's representative responded sympathetically and suggested I get some rest. He wasn't trying to harass geeks like me.

By that time, though, I had become engrossed in my TOS agreement. You accept the terms of one of these legally binding contracts whenever you sign up with an ISP, a free e-mail service such as Hotmail, or virtually any other Web service. Though designed primarily to foil spammers and other miscreants who abuse the services, the restrictions in TOS agreements can snag well-meaning users as well. Especially those who never read the things--and that's probably just about everybody.

NOT EXACTLY UNLIMITED

ISPs freely bandy about the phrase unlimited access, but most restrict the amount of Net access you're entitled to for your monthly fee. Maybe you use a "pinging" utility such as InKline Global's Stay Connected to keep a dial-up ISP connection alive even when you aren't using it. Or perhaps you and your spouse or business partner share an account and occasionally log in from different phone numbers at the same time. Or maybe you simply have your e-mail program set up to check for new messages every 20 minutes, whether you're sitting at your PC or not (as I did).

If you fall into any of these categories, you should keep an eye out for a letter like the one I got. The restrictions in MSN's agreement are typical:

"You may not...under any circumstances, do any of the following: use simultaneous, unattended, or continuous connections to MSN with one account....Your failure to observe any of the foregoing limitations or obligations may result in civil or criminal liability, as well as termination of your membership."

Many ISPs have automatic filters that watch for this sort of activity. Ed Hansen, public relations manager for EarthLink, explains: "[Users receiving service on] flat-rate accounts are prohibited from using artificial means to stay logged in. If someone maintains a full-time connection using a modem port, we can't make money. People who need to do that should switch to [cable or DSL access] as soon as it becomes available to them."

CAREFUL WHAT YOU E-MAIL

Terms-of-service agreements also lay down the law when it comes to the seemingly private matter of your e-mail's contents. If, for example, you e-mail copyrighted MP3 music files without obtaining the owners' permission, you're violating copyright laws. Maybe you already knew that but figured no one would care? As Deanna Sanford, lead product manager at MSN, points out, "If you are breaking [intellectual property] law...via your Hotmail e-mail account, your account can be terminated." Of course, for that to happen, a recipient would have to report you to your e-mail provider: Service providers don't check your file attachments.

How would you like to explain to your mother that you had to get a new e-mail address because of your foul language? I recently tried (unsuccessfully) to help a reader get her free e-mail account reinstated after she was accused of breaking the rules about abusive and lewd language in an e-mail message (the recipient complained to her e-mail provider). In a case like this, the original e-mail could fall under scrutiny and--in an extreme situation involving threats--law enforcement officials might be called in. In this particular instance, the reader's account was promptly canceled.

So before you push the button to fire off an intemperate e-mail, remember this:

If the recipient decides to forward it to your e-mail provider, your angry, salacious, or profane words may be read by strangers at your e-mail provider.

ACTIVE VERSUS INACTIVE

E-mail accounts can also be terminated either for lack of activity or for too much activity. At Hotmail, for example, if you don't log in to your e-mail account within 10 days of setting it up--and at least once every 90 days thereafter--all your e-mail on the Hotmail server will be deleted. (Hotmail does send you an e-mail alert before trashing your messages; but of course, if you don't check your mail, you won't see this warning.)You're unlikely to run afoul of rules designed to discourage the excessive use of e-mail unless you number yourself among the parasitic genera of Internet bottom-feeders known as spammers. In fact, many stipulations in terms-of-service agreements expressly target people who send massive amounts of unsolicited junk e-mail. "We have a department that does nothing but handle abuse issues, and the vast majority of problems are related to spam," says EarthLink's Hansen.

None of the providers that I spoke with would divulge what restrictions they place on e-mail volume; they don't want spammers to find out. But the rules aren't there to stop you from, say, broadcasting a change-of-address notice to your clients. Such an isolated occurrence might draw an inquisitive e-mail from your ISP, but typically all you have to do is explain what happened. Usually, expulsion occurs only after repeated abuses.

REGULATING THE RULES

As you scrutinize your TOS agreements, a multistate group of attorneys general is doing the same thing. Back in May of 1998, a group of states reached a pact with America Online under which the online service must actively and immediately notify users of any alterations it makes to its terms of service.

The original inquiry came in response to AOL's switch to a flat-rate fee; the states determined that the company hadn't clearly notified users of the change at the time it was made.

These same attorneys general are now examining other online services' TOS agreements. "Consumers have to understand that the terms-of-service agreement is a contract and they will be bound by the terms," explains Debbie Hagan, chief of the state Bureau of Consumer Fraud at the Springfield, Illinois, attorney general's office. "In particular...reasonable notice should be given to consumers of any contract change." Agreements specifying that terms can be changed without notice may violate basic contract law, she says.

My advice? Make it your business to acquaint yourself with the terms of any service contract you agree to comply with. Says Anna Reboli, security and abuse department manager at Juno, a provider of free e-mail and Internet service, "I think it's important to remember that ISPs do enforce their terms-of-service agreements. Internet users do not always realize that their actions will have repercussions."

Personally, I'm getting just a little paranoid. I used to worry about leaving the iron on and burning down the house. But on a recent weekend getaway, I panicked that I'd left my Net connection running back home. One more run-in with my ISP, and I could find myself a geek without an e-mail address.

Christina Wood is a PC World contributing editor.

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