Terms of Service

So, I’ve been using Vonage for my phone (landline) for the past 2 years or so, and I have been pretty happy with the service they provide. However, I am currently shopping for a new VoIP provider.

I’m not doing this because I want cheaper service, nor am I doing it because Vonage outsources their tech support and the quality of said support is shoddy at best (though those things are in fact good reasons to switch in my opinion.)

I am leaving because I want to play with asterisk and because Vonage only provides a locked ATA I am unable to do so while using their services for VoIP. (Yes, I know I can pay extra to get the soft phone and use the resulting SIP credentials to configure asterisk to work with Vonage; the point isn’t that there’s a workaround, the point is Vonage discourages its customers from using the VoIP service they have paid for in the manner that best suits them.)

So, as I’ve been shopping around, I discovered ViaTalk. This company seems to have the services I’m looking for (flat monthly fee for unlimited US calling [I hate the per minute thing], call forwarding, voice mail, etc) at a price that is actually better than what I currently have with Vonage (about half the cost if I sign up for the 12 month plan.) Even better, they have a BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) plan specifically designed for folks that have asterisk or similar needs.

Of course, I’m not one to just jump at the first thing that comes along, so I did a bit of research, and the general consensus amongst the net folk seems to be that ViaTalk is a decent provider, with very good customer support. A bit rough around the edges perhaps, but working hard to make things smooth (in fairness, they just ended the ‘beta’ version of their service last month). However, I noticed that even the folks which were talking about the “rough spots” were also talking about how impressed they were with the customer support ViaTalk showed.

All in all, it sounded like a great deal. Being a geek, I don’t mind ‘a bit rough around the edges’, and am willing to live with needing to bounce the router every now and then to accommodate whatever changes have been made. (Especially since [in theory] now that the service is no longer beta this shouldn’t be much of an issue …)

As part of my research, I even initiated a conversation with a ViaTalk Sales Rep using their online chat feature, and was very impressed with the knowledge, and most of all the genuine *humanness*, that I encountered. It was very refreshing.

Just when I was convinced to go ahead and make the switch, I found a post on DSLReports which warned about the ViaTalk Terms of Service. Specifically, there is a line which reads:

ViaTalk may update this agreement at any time without notice and you are agreeing to such changes in advance.

Now, I don’t know anyone, much less any geeks, who think that sounds fair. I can’t imagine any other type of binding document outside the software/tech industry which says “we can change this any time we feel like it, and you agree right now that whatever we say goes”. I asked a few of my friends (also geeks) what they thought about it, and we were all in agreement:

It’s ridiculous, and evil.

Because of that one line, I’ve decided to wait a bit and see if I can find a VoIP provider which offers what I’m looking for at a price that’s right, and doesn’t have that type of line it their Terms of Service. However, I keep going back to ViaTalk, mostly because I’m having a tough time finding another company that seems stable (read, not fly-by-night and just jumping on the VoIP bandwagon cause it’s a Venture Capitalist buzzword of the day).

So, I decided to contact ViaTalk again, using their web based chat once more. The main goal of this conversation (from my point of view) was to simply let them know that I was very interested in their products, but that their Terms of Service agreement was keeping me away.

I spoke to a very nice representative, and stated the above right away. I also mentioned the fact that (in my opinion) VoIP is still a ‘geeks playground’ really, and that geeks tend to notice things like Terms of Service. I brought up the point that if I was discussing this with my friends, it was likely that others were as well, and that I had in fact discovered the offending line as a result of a posting to a web site where customers discuss their experiences with VoIP providers.

To my delight, the sales rep actually said:

I apologize for our ‘evil’ terms of service.

I mean, come on, if I hadn’t yet decided that I liked the way ViaTalk handled themselves, the sales rep saying that absolutely would have convinced me that they were the right choice.

Not getting the runaround and a bunch of stupid corporate rhetoric earned them a whole lot of points in my book. (This of course brings up the possibility that perhaps geeks have a different standard than the average consumer when ascertaining whether a given company is ‘right’ for their needs …)

I explained to the Sales Rep that is was quite alright, and really I was just looking to let someone know that, while I understand why they have that line there, at least one potential customer was still looking elsewhere because of it. Their representative told me that they had passed my concern on to their supervisor, and we ended the conversation on a positive note.

Now, I bring this up, not because I wish to cast ViaTalk in a bad light for their Terms of Service. I am still extremely impressed with the interaction I’ve had with the company thus far. I am bringing all this up because of what I found today when, out of curiosity, I started looking at the Terms of Service other tech companies have :

Although we may attempt to notify you via your Gmail address when major changes are made, you should visit this page periodically to review the terms. Google may, in its sole discretion, modify or revise these terms and conditions and policies at any time, and you agree to be bound by such modifications or revisions.

Yep, that’s correct. The above statement, which is almost exactly the same as the ViaTalk one, is from none other than Google’s Gmail Terms of Service agreement!

Now, Google is beloved by geeks everywhere, and they are well known in the geek community for their motto “don’t be evil” (in reality, the motto is “You can make money without doing evil.” according to the Ten Things page of the Google website.) How is it that such an evil line can slip into the Terms of Service of a product so widely used by geeks (and many others) without causing a stir?

I don’t have an answer to that. But I am now forced to reconsider whether the right course of action for me to take is to stick with my principles and refrain from using Gmail as well as ViaTalk because of that line, or surrender and sign up with ViaTalk because hey, I’ve already agreed to a similar line elsewhere.

I don’t really have an answer to that question yet either.

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