Your "unlimited" web connection may be anything but

Each month, you shell out real, green dollars for unlimited web access. And one day, you log on, only to see a big blank screen, courtesy of your provider. Why? You used the web too much with that unlimited account.

It happens all the time. One Comcast customer was dumped for using too much web service on a plan he purchased because it was "unlimited." The company told him the word referred to the fact he could be on his computer as much as he wanted, not that he could view as many pages and videos as he wanted. And then Comcast tried selling him a more expensive plan. Infuriated, he fought back, launching a fiery blog and a cutting YouTube protest to tell the world he'd been ripped off. And a consumer advocate was born.

In July, Sprint put a cap on its previously "unlimited" data card usage, following Verizon and AT&T. Now, 5 gigabytes is all you get unless you want corporate monkeys to shut off your supply. Americans aren't the only ones to suffer the bait-and-switch defended by dense legalese and bent logic in the Terms of Service contract: U.K.'s Vodafone puts similar caps on its "unlimited" mobile phone plan, as does Canada's TELUS.Just last month, a music enthusiast who put digital copies of public domain 78 rpm records online was locked out of his supposedly unlimited Yahoo web hosting account. The crime? Popularity, after Wired magazine ran a blurb on his free site and downloads spiked. The site is now back online, but now it has to offer its songs using a torrent site that doesn't tax Yahoo's servers. Does that sound like "unlimited" service to you?

How on earth is the average computer user supposed to know when they have reached the limit? Most people have no idea how much they download on a regular basis. As Boing Boing writer Cory Doctorow nicely puts it in the discussion section of this story about Verizon getting its wrist slapped over advertising not-so-unlimited plans: "Unlike per-minute pricing -- there is no human faculty for determining your bit-use. Quick: how many bits did you download when you loaded this page?"

It's not just for web access or cell phones, either. In the TV realm, CBS and Real Networks are collaborators in on the lying game. For years, it has sold online peeping rights to its popular summer staple Big Brother (which ends its 10th season tonight) by saying viewers will get a "live 24/7 feed" from inside the house. In reality, network censors block access to a long list of activities that include humming by the contestants and any game destined for the TV broadcast. Producers get away with it by cutting to a view inside a fish tank that sits in the corner of one of the rooms. "You've got no case, suckers," the CBS lawyers might as well say, "You're still looking at something going on in the house."

So before you sign up for any web or phone service, scour the fine print in the terms of service. Verizon, for one, has been known to slip bans on online gaming and YouTube into the hidden language there, where the average person is unlikely to notice them or interpret the verbiage correctly.

For a moment, set aside the dubious interpretation of the word "unlimited" by the big companies here and whether customers have been duped. The limits themselves have the potential to stifle the growth of the web itself. Heaven knows how we're going to usher in the era of computer-based HD video viewing with caps like these.
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