Warner Cable’s bum rap on Web
It was the sort of tip that would have made for a great column -- if it were true.
A Los Angeles customer of Time Warner Cable Inc. e-mailed to say he just learned that the company had sneakily inserted new language into its contract allowing it to start charging Internet users higher monthly fees for network-heavy activities such as downloading movies.
I immediately combed through Time Warner’s 10,000-word residential service agreement and bingo, there it was: a provision stipulating that increased Net usage “may result in higher monthly charges” or Time Warner imposing “other charges and fees.”
I also found mention of Time Warner’s contract switcheroo on a number of blogs, including prominent websites such as the Consumerist and GigaOM. Dozens of blog readers had posted angry responses. Outraged tweets were zipping through the Twittersphere.
Problem was, nobody had it right.
“It’s not new language,” said Patricia Fregoso-Cox, a Time Warner Cable spokeswoman. “We’ve had this language or similar language in the agreement for several years.”
Moreover, she says the company hasn’t made any changes to its customer contract since August.
The Time Warner tips, tweets and blog posts illustrate how easily bogus information can be passed off as legitimate online -- and how quickly the brush fire can spread across the electronic ether.
They also highlight the challenge that companies face in putting out such brush fires once they start.
“You can’t undo all the damage,” said spinmeister Michael Sitrick, whose eponymous L.A. company is a leader in corporate crisis management. “But you can undo a significant amount of damage -- if you move quickly.”
The topic of Time Warner playing fast and loose with contract terms was especially tantalizing for me because I wrote in April about the company’s plans to experiment with “consumption-based billing” for Net access. I reported how heavy Net users could be charged as much as $150 a month.
A day later, Time Warner Cable’s chief executive, Glenn Britt, issued a statement saying the company was backing off from the idea. He said no changes would be made until Time Warner did “everything we can to inform our customers of our plans and have the benefit of their views as part of our testing process.”
Nothing else on the subject has been announced since then, Time Warner’s Fregoso-Cox said.
As best as I can tell, news of the supposed fast one Time Warner was pulling on customers originated with a blog called Stop the Cap!, which posted the “new” contract language May 28 and warned that “for the first time” the company had laid the groundwork “to introduce usage caps, tiered usage rate plans, overlimit fees” and other customer-unfriendly moves.
Stop the Cap! said it was alerted to the contract language by a reader named Oscar, who “noticed a tiny message on his most recent bill from Time Warner Cable stating the company had ‘updated’ their Subscriber Agreement.”
It didn’t take long for other blogs to pick up on the story and report it as fact.
In a breathless posting last weekend, the Consumerist said that “Time Warner has revised their Subscriber Agreement to lay the legal foundation needed to implement consumption based billing.”
It said that even though the company had backed off from this plan in April, Time Warner “clearly has no intention of letting such a potentially massive cash cow escape from the paddock.”
The tech site GigaOM also reported the contract change as a done deal and warned that the new language was “directed at legitimizing the cable company’s ability to throttle and measure a consumer’s bandwidth,” and that “the new additions to the agreement also sanction tiered pricing.”
The original posting on Stop the Cap! was written by the site’s founder, Phillip Dampier. I sent him an e-mail pointing out Time Warner’s denial that the language was new.
Dampier replied that “we are not saying this means consumption billing has been implemented.” But he reiterated that the contract language “lays the groundwork to allow it to occur under the terms and conditions subscribers agree to today.”
In any case, Dampier updated his blog post after our e-mail exchange. He now maintains that the important thing isn’t when the offending language first appeared in Time Warner’s contract, but what it could mean for customers in the future.
“Bottom line, there is an open question about the exact date the changes were made, but not about the substance of those changes and their implications,” Dampier wrote.
GigaOM also updated its blog post after I queried the writer about its contents. Like Stop the Cap!, the revised posting sidestepped the question of timing, which was central to the original post, and focused instead on the implications of the contract language.
“One way or another Time Warner still needs to address the concerns generated by the modified language,” it said.
Sitrick, the PR pooh-bah, doesn’t count Time Warner Cable among his clients. But he says all companies have to stay atop of what appears about them online.
“You have to be increasingly vigilant,” Sitrick said. “And if you can, you have to respond blog by blog.”
That’s a tall order for many companies. Those with deep pockets can hire professional crisis managers. Others have to do the legwork themselves -- a time-consuming and often impossible task for businesses lacking the resources for cyber spin control.
Unfortunately, Sitrick said, bogus info can circulate for years on the Web, reemerging any time someone does a Google search.
“It can get a life of its own,” he said. “You want to get in front of it before the snowball causes an avalanche.”
By week’s end, Time Warner Cable had started spreading the word online that the reports of its contract changes were untrue.
The company seems to have dodged an avalanche. But it’ll take time to shake off all the snow.
David Lazarus’ column runs Wednesdays and Sundays.
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