Why do we let large businesses behave so badly?

Virgin Media want me to let them use my home internet connection so they can provide free wi-fi to other Virgin customers who may be passing. Presumably, in time, they will also charge non-Virgin customers for the same privilege, so generating revenue from an infrastructure I paid them to install. The incentive for me is, evidently, the ability to piggyback other Virgin customers’ connections when I’m out and about.

What’s the issue? Well, firstly it’s a security disaster waiting to happen. If they have a connection to my router, they have a potential route into my network. Virgin will assure me that they’ve segregated the guest connection, but we’ve heard that kind of thing before. Secondly, they are already amongst the most aggressive traffic shapers in the broadband world; my notional 150mb/s is often less than 2mb/s at peak times. I don’t feel like sharing this bread-and-water ration with the world. Thirdly, in a world of speculative invoicing and ever-greater surveillance, I don’t want strangers using a pipe that is traceable only to me.

Wait! I hear you say, surely not many people will use your connection given that you live on a suburban street, not above a busy coffee shop? Indeed, but since I can see the wifi networks of at least a dozen neighbours it would hardly be beyond the wit of man to buy the cheapest possible Virgin subscription that gained you access to their “free” wifi and then aggregate a bunch of your neighbours’ pipes to get resilient, high-speed and untraceable connectivity. Especially if you planned to use that connectivity for nefarious purposes.

Did I mention that I’m a professional paranoiac?

Anyway, that’s only the introduction to this post. The point is that this is an opt-out offer. In other words, if I don’t register at My Virgin Media (which I don’t want to do) and take time out of my day to tell them to get lost, they’ll impose this on me. There’s no other way to opt-out – I can’t email them (they don’t offer a public email address), you can’t do it by phone, their twitter account is monitored only by vacuous marketing idiots and when I tried actually writing to them, on paper, the response I received made it clear that they’d received the letter, but not actually read it.

This sort of thing happens all the time – Spotify changed their Ts&Cs recently, imposing significant adverse conditions on their customers, and everyone from Facebook to Apple has been in the news at some point for the same kind of behaviour. Out in the commercial world, this is much rarer. The service provider and the customer agree a contract – and unlike consumer deals, this implies the possibility of negotiation – and those are the terms, absent the intervention of legislation, until expiry. They can only be varied by mutual consent. Surely the same principle should apply to consumers also: assuming you even read the Ts&Cs (which most people don’t), those should remain fixed until whatever term you signed up for has expired, unless you explicitly agree to the variation.

I’m not normally a fan of legislation – we have enough of it already – but requiring consumer-facing business to stick to the terms originally agreed seems to me a prime candidate for a bit of judicious government intervention.

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