Tech Law

AT&T Could Lose Big in David-vs.-Goliath Match

AT&T and litigant Matthew Spaccarelli are engaged in a war of words that AT&T appears to be losing.

The incident began when Spaccarelli sued AT&T in small claims court in California. He charged that the company had violated his unlimited data plan agreement for his iPhone by throttling, or slowing down, his data speed. The court agreed and awarded Spaccarelli US$850 for his trouble.

That was bad enough for the carrier, which prompted an outcry earlier this year when it began scaling back speeds on customers’ unlimited plans after they exceeded a certain data threshold.

However, the situation quickly worsened for AT&T.

A Threat or a Mutual NDA?

The carrier reached out to Spaccarelli, requesting that he participate in settlement talks with the network, according to news accounts. Refusal reportedly would result in his service being terminated.

Also, if Spaccarelli were to participate in the talks, one of the requirements would be a mutual nondisclosure agreement that presumably would apply to documents Spaccarelli posted online detailing how he brought — and won — his small claims suit.

Spaccarelli has shown little inclination to come to the negotiating table. He not only refused to comply with AT&T’s request to be quiet about the proposed settlement talks, but also forwarded its letter to The Associated Press.

In addition, he posted a call for other AT&T customers to take action at Publik Demand.

AT&T’s Side

Some of the reports circulating in the media don’t have all the details right, according to AT&T spokesperson Mark Siegel.

For starters, “Spaccarelli reached out to us to initiate a discussion, and naturally we responded to him,” he told TechNewsWorld.

As for the mention of an NDA, “that is completely standard, and we typically enter into those agreements when people want to discus the settlement of a pending case,” he said. “The point is, though, he reached out to us to initiate a discussion, and we responded to him.”

Spaccarelli has admitted that he used his iPhone to connect other devices to the Internet, Siegel said. That is, he tethered it, which is not allowed under AT&T’s terms of service for the unlimited plan. “If customers want to tether, we have plans that allow them to do so.”

A Folk Hero

If this is the full story, AT&T had better step up its efforts to get out its version of what happened, David Johnson, principal of Strategic Vision, told TechNewsWorld.

The way the story is trending now, Spaccarelli is turning into a minor folk hero.

“I could see him starring in the next Verizon Wireless ad, easily,” said Johnson.

A Smoking Gun?

Right now, it looks as though AT&T is threatening to shut down Spaccarelli’s account after he went through the proper legal channels to register a complaint — and won, Johnson said.

“Instead of just being an embarrassing episode for AT&T, the carrier is now coming off as a bully and possibly even suggesting that there may be something else going on, perhaps a smoking gun,” he suggested.

Also, by highlighting the fact that Spaccarelli’s documents are posted online, AT&T is drawing more attention to them than if it had just ignored the matter, Johnson added.

It is these that possibly pose the greatest danger to AT&T, he continued. “If other people are able to win cases against AT&T for throttling what was supposed to be unlimited data plans, it could seriously hurt the brand. This is a matter of a court agreeing with a company’s critics that it did something wrong.”

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