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ISPs told 'Free' must mean free

Advertising body says ISPs have gone too far with their advertising
Written by Will Knight, Contributor

ISPs have been warned that "Free" must mean free by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and that promotional material must be clear about the availability of services. In its monthly report released Wednesday the ASA upheld complaints about supposedly free services and about the availability of unmetered deals from NTL and BT (quote: BT).

The advertising watchdog criticises ISPs for misleading consumers with claims of free service packages which in fact contain hidden charges. It has sent letters to over one hundred ISPs warning them to clean up their marketing methods.

The ASA received over 170 complaints about NTL's advertising campaign for its ntlworld product. In truth the company was struggling with a backlog of customers.

BT has also been chastised for misleading customers about the availability of its Surftime unmetered offering. Contrary to BT's advertising, which suggests Surftime is available to all, customers cannot use the service if their ISP has not joined the scheme or if their local telephone exchange is incompatible.

Fierce competition for customers has forced ISPs to aggressively advertise an often bewildering array of unbelievable deals. The ASA says that practice must end.

"It's standard advertising practice to ensure that you don't mislead the public by offering products and services that you can't supply," says a spokesman for the ASA.

Consumers have been inundated with "free" Internet deals for more than a year. The ASA says the sheer volume of offerings coupled with a growing online population has lead to confusion. "Over the course of the year, we have become more concerned about the number of complaints," says an ASA spokeswoman. "Consumers are getting more confused."

The ASA cannot legally enforce companies to follow its directives or award compensation to complainants but ISPs are likely to follow its recommendations closely. "We aim to comply," says a BT spokesman. "Across the board with BT advertising, we will comply with ASA directives. The main thing is that we don't want to mislead customers."

NTL also says that it will comply with the ASA's recommendations although it has already changed its advertising campaign and claims to have cleared up its backlog of NTL World customers. PlusNet and Appleonline.net were unavailable for comment.

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