Rupert Goodwins: IT's Like This...

Yesterday Oftel rapped BT's knuckles for its attempts to poach customers from other ISPs. Rupert Goodwins looks at the evidence and gives thanks to a new consumer weapon...

The ISP customer poaching story has reached its denouement - at least for now. BT's said it won't do it again, and Oftel has carefully avoided saying what it thought actually went on. But if BT does it again, there'll be trouble. Probably.

Which is about as much as could be hoped for, as the scale of the misdemeanour was really quite small. The matter progressed as far as it did as much because of the pent-up bad feeling towards BT as because of the seriousness of the matter, as we realised from the email we were sent after the initial story went online.

We can't report on much of what we received, because it's hearsay or unverifiable - although we do take note and file it all away. As well as the switch-sales tactics, we received claims of other, unconnected activities by BT that our correspondents considered worth investigation - and if they turn out to be true, they'll certainly fall into that category. It's just as possible that they never took place, or that they're run-of-the-mill business activities that have been misunderstood. The commercial world is a harsh place, and nobody would ever blame a company just for acting aggressively in pursuit of its interests.

Yet there is a widespread opinion in the UK telecommunications market that BT does not tend to behave conservatively with respect to its licencing conditions. If there's a grey area, then the company will push the limits until told to stop. The reaction of other ISPs and telcos to all this is depressing - a fatalistic acceptance that BT is always going to call the shots, and it's a waste of time trying to stop it. As one source close to a major ISP told me - "We've known about this switch selling for ages. It's not news. What can we do? BT's going to act like this, and we'd better accept it and work from there. Oftel won't do anything, and even if it did BT will just stop a tiny little bit of what it's doing. Nothing will change."

Only Oftel did do something, and remarkably quickly. It may only have been a press release - but who knows what was discussed behind closed doors when BT was summoned - yet it took just three weeks from ZDNet News and IT Week's initial report of foul play to it being stomped on for good. In the days before the Internet, it would've taken much longer to pull together the evidence for similar shenanigans, and this story is the perfect illustration of how much more power the Net gives consumers.

That power is only there if we take it and use it wisely, and that's where outfits such as ZDNet have a new and exciting role to play. The press has always been one of the consumer's more potent weapons against the darker side of capitalism, but that only works well when there are good lines of communication between us journalists and our readers. The Internet is tremendously good at this. We should do it again sometime.

Everyone involved in the business of BT's poaching should come away with a valuable lesson. Readers and consumers should realise that they're not alone, and that making a little noise in a public place online can be a great way to attract attention. Journalists should realise the extent to which the Net can make news, not just filter or distort it. Oftel now sees that the telecommunication consumers - whom it is charged with protecting - aren't nearly as passive and unreachable as once they were, and that those consumers want more action, not less. ISPs should realise that they're not powerless in the face of the BT gorilla. BT itself - and all corporates dealing with the public - must now know that everyone else is watching them keenly and swapping stories over the Net. It's happened before when Intel was so violently shocked by the Pentium bug turning into a landslide of criticism: it blamed the Internet, but in truth the real culprit was the company's arrogance.

Nothing but nothing annoys a consumer like being patronised by someone to whom they're giving money, and BT can be so very patronising. Give the consumers a chance to bite back, and they will: the Internet is that chance. If this whole affair has brought that home just a little bit to the people who decide what BT does next, then it's been worthwhile.

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