Journal: News & Comment

Friday, July 29, 2005
# 4:02:00 PM:

My message to Telus on the phone: decisions count

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The phone tag is over. I finally spoke to the Executive Customer Relations Advisor at Telus just now, and while I'm not entirely encouraged, I'm at least a bit mollified. Some notes:

  • She's obviously extremely busy, but was willing to take a good 20 minutes to listen to me rant and rave (in a polite way) about Telus's blocking of the pro-union website. I'll excuse her calling me both "Dennis" and "David" a couple of times.

  • The best news is that Telus is no longer blocking the Voices for Change website. (I'm unsure of the status of other blocked sites, since I haven't checked what they are.) Instead, the company has talked to the site administrator, asking to have some of the more objectionable material removed—which is what they should have done in the first place. Discussion on the website about the matter is typically fiery.

    Since I was never able to find the material Telus was complaining about, I don't know how bad (or not) it was, and I'm also not a lawyer. Apparently there were open threats to people crossing picket lines ("Do you know where your wife and children are?"), which could be illegal. There were also photos of those line-crossers—but since Telus security and others have also apparently been taking photos and video of union picketers and supporters (though not posting them on a website), that's more of a grey area. And the posting of confidential Telus documents (procedures for managers to avoid picket lines, for instance) is a breach of confidentiality agreements—whoever leaked those documents could be sued, fired, or whatever—but that's not criminal.

  • She told me that, "This [blocking sites] is not something that we do. But because of the position that we're in, this is something that we had to do," as an issue of employee safety. I countered that blocking the site, (a) didn't work, (b) was bad PR for Telus, and (c) might lose them customers. And she agreed without reservation. I also argued that there's no way for me as a customer to know, once this has happened once, that it won't happen again under some other pressure. Blocking sites is something Telus does, since the company just did it.

    On the other hand, I do get the impression that Telus decision-makers may be learning something from the incident, because of the reactions of customers like me, bloggers worldwide, Slashdot, lawyers, and so on. But actions matter more than words, and we'll see.

  • Several times, my phone contact said that "the information shown [on the website] was illegal," but she never gave me a satisfactory explanation of how Telus, rather than the police or the courts, can decide that, and then mete out a penalty (even if the penalty didn't work). "I'm not in a position to determine whether it was legal or illegal," she said, but Telus's lawyers did look at the site before the block. But lawyers are neither police nor judges, and for good reason.

  • I also restated my argument that Telus was jeopardizing its previous positions (in court cases) that it is a common carrier, not responsible for the material carried over its networks. (That argument is why Telus and other ISPs didn't get sued over Napster or in other file-sharing cases, for instance.) I also noted that the site blocking contradicts item 37 of Telus's own Internet terms of service, which state:
    You acknowledge that the TELUS Internet Services provide access to content, information and materials that are uncensored. You acknowledge that some of the content, information and material that is available through the TELUS Internet Services and the Internet may be inaccurate, offensive, harmful or in violation of applicable laws.
    And again, she agreed that the company's recent actions contradict that part of the terms.

Ultimately, my argument was that, regardless of whether the material on the Voices for Change site (etc.) was illegal or otherwise objectionable—and irrespective of whether Telus thinks it has the legal or moral right to block the site—Telus customers like me (and other Internet users around the world) feel that we can't trust the company with our Internet anymore. Even people who didn't know about the labour dispute at all, people halfway around the globe, now think of Telus as the bad guy, which surely can't help. Like the governments of China and Singapore, this private company was trying to decide what it will let us see by blocking material it finds objectionable.

The site blocking is like a crack in the veneer, showing (accurately or inaccurately) the attitude of the company underneath. That makes me think about changing to another carrier. It already makes many others no longer consider Telus as a potential service provider. And, in the end, Telus needs customers, because that's what its business is about—helping people communicate. If we can't trust that we can communicate through Telus transparently, it will lose us.

I hope that's the message that got through. I hope it sinks in. Even when this labour dispute is over, Telus will have a lot of work to do to try to regain that trust. In the heat of a labour disruption, blocking a few websites seems like a small decision.

But decisions count.


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