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@Home document raises privacy concerns

Tele-Communications Incorporated will issue a letter to explain a revised service agreement for its @Home Network after consumers claim it could infringe on their rights as users.

Tele-Communications Incorporated will issue a letter to explain a revised service agreement for its @Home Network after consumers claimed several clauses could infringe on their rights as users.

The legal document--similar to the user agreements of other Internet service providers--contains language that some customers have said could allow TCI to republish information sent via email or to release users' personal information to third parties.

Although the revised policy raised a few eyebrows, TCI said it has only its customers in mind.

"Customers rights and their privacy is a top priority," said TCI spokeswoman Katina Vlahadamis. "A lot of things were included to protect the customers as well as the company."

Vlahadamis said the planned letter, intended to better explain what the new user agreement means for its Net access customers, would be sent "shortly," possibly as early as this week.

TCI admitted, however, that consumer concerns could have been avoided with some careful planning and more tactful language.

"The way that it's worded isn't maybe as consumer-friendly as we would have liked," Vlahadamis said.

One clause in the new TCI agreement authorizes TCI to "reproduce, publish, distribute, and display...worldwide" any content that was published, transmitted, or distributed over the @Home high-speed Net service.

But TCI said the controversial clause is simply intended to protect the company from violating any copyright laws when it delivers its customers' data packets.

"We don't plan to intentionally distribute this information to unintended persons," Vlahadamis said. "It's not 'publish' in the everyday use of the word; it's 'publish' in the legalese way. It gives us the copyright protection to distribute emails and the information customers want us to."

Scott Greczkowski, moderator of the Connecticut @Home Users Group, is organizing a protest this weekend over the new agreement and recent performance problems that have plagued @Home in Hartford. Greczkowski plans to protest @Home's service at a hands-on trial the company is planning in Bristol, Connecticut.

The revised agreement applies only to TCI @Home users, not users of @Home through other operators such as Cox Communications or Comcast. @Home has a separate "acceptable use policy."

Under some interpretations of intellectual property law, mirroring content on a Web server--as happens with @Home's and other ISPs' caching systems--potentially violates the author's copyrights, said Dave McClure, executive director of the Association of Online Professionals.

But the language in TCI's subscriber agreement may go beyond what it needs to safeguard this function, McClure added.

"If this is a poorly worded contract, it should be brought to their attention," McClure said. "This is the kind of issue that can become huge."

@Home said privacy is a top priority for the Internet company.

"Privacy is of the utmost importance to the Internet industry and to the cable industry," said @Home spokesman Matt Wolfrom. "Cable is even more aware and under the scrutiny of privacy laws since the beginning of pay-per-view days."

Cable television is governed by the Cable Privacy Act, a federal law that regulates interactive transactions. The law protects consumers from receiving product solicitations based on their pay-per-view, or other cable preferences.

TCI officials said it revised the document last week in response to the impending deployment of Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS)-compliant modems, and other contractual issues. But many of the objectionable clauses were in the old document, executives said, and some users that have complained may have been reading the agreement for the first time.

"There were a lot of changes to the document but we hadn't updated the document since we first launched the service," Vlahadamis said.

News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.