I don’t got the hookup

I’m honored to be writing this brand-new column, in this farm-fresh Tech section, in this third-most-wired city in America. That last is what I hear from Yahoo Internet Life, which jiggled some stats this month and rated Rain City just behind San Francisco and Austin, Texas, for Net-ness. It cited local access and content as two local high points—content in particular earning a perfect-10 rating.

Are you surprised too? Last I checked, this was still Seattle, where getting a new residential phone line installed can take up to six weeks, where the best-known local cybercafe is about to shuffle off its brick-and-mortar mortal coil, and where the dominant cable company is so feckless it’s been forced to start giving customers back their money if it can’t get them service better than, say, two tin cans and a coax cable.

That’s our TCI, soon to be subsumed into the body of AT&T. This bane of ESPN2 lovers from Broadview to Bellevue is also, thanks to its partnership in service provider @Home, Seattle’s sole source of high-speed cable-modem access. A recent City Council decision states that TCI/AT&T doesn’t have to allow any other high-bandwidth provider to horn in on the Seattle market, which TCI claims to be at 122,424 households today and potentially 259,000 homes (that is, every household in Seattle) by year’s end.

Being a Windows user and thus accustomed to life as a satanic corporation’s bitch, I recently considering signing up for @Home to fulfill my Netly needs—until I got a load of @Home’s Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), which governs what users can and can’t do with their Net access. This top-rated Wired City for content will be pleased to know that under the terms of the AUP I read, the only high-speed service game in town laid copyright claim to everything its subscribers put online—e-mail, Web pages, stock quotes, MP3 music files, naked pictures of Jeff Bezos, whatever.

The @Home AUP stated that by using the service to send e-mail or serve up Web pages, users authorize @Home to “reproduce, publish, distribute, and display such content worldwide.” (In addition, the AUP said that it reserved the right to reveal your personal information to anybody at @Home, or anyone working with @Home, or anyone who’ll give money to @Home, or just about anyone else they feel like, without telling you—but that’s another story.)

Naturally, @Home spokespersons assured the would-be consumer that there’s nothing wrong or weird about that. It’s just legalese, and pretty standard blather at that, designed to make sure that customers are protected and the e-mail trains all run on time.

But it’s not standard. In fact, most Internet service providers (ISPs) want as little responsibility as possible for your content, preferring to operate as a common carrier like the phone company. That arrangement protects them from legal liability for their subscribers’ transgressions. It makes sense for the company, since it doesn’t have the wherewithal to monitor every byte that flows through the system. It makes sense for customers, because it’s your stuff—as Net pioneer the WELL puts it, “You own your own words.” Mega ISP Netcom (recently purchased by supermega ISP Mindspring) states in its AUP that it is just “the conduit which delivers content from sender to receiver over the Internet; it is not the purpose or intent of Netcom to monitor conduct, communication, or content on its services.” Homegrown ISP Speakeasy.org is much more succinct: Being a jerk will get you busted, but that’s your problem.

Finally, TCI heard enough of this outcry to promise to rescind the contract, replacing it with something more traditional—albeit with a few “minimal changes.” (Alas, TCI is only changing the privacy provision, leaving the copyright claims intact.)

There are plenty of other companies looking to oblige the need for speed: Road Runner, America Online, and so on. Each is evil in its own way (Road Runner is a Time-Warner entity, for example), but they’re out there, and there will be others. It’s just that they won’t be in homes or apartment buildings where TCI is the available cable system. As it stands, the Seattle City Council will make no move to rein in AT&T/TCI until at least October, when a panel of experts decides whether a $40/month charge for every would-be speed demon is fair—no matter which ISP users choose for anything beyond the manda- tory @Home “basic” service. A fine choice for the millennium: slug-slow access via traditional modem or a top-speed path to copyright ambiguity for your perfect-10 content.

Related Links:

@Home AUP

Netcom AUG (Acceptable Use Guidelines)