Proposed laws won't catch disputed DSL data charges

Customers of fast internet services may get no joy after being overcharged for unwanted traffic, even after a proposed law change that would bring telecommunications services under the Consumer Guarantees and Sale of Goods Acts.

Customers of fast internet services may get no joy after being overcharged for unwanted traffic, even after a proposed law change that would bring telecommunications services under the Consumer Guarantees and Sale of Goods Acts.

Users of Telecom’s JetStream DSL service continue to report being billed for traffic they never see or accept.

“The argument can always be put forward that it’s not Telecom’s, or any other telco’s fault,” says Consumers Institute spokesman David Russell. If the nuisance traffic is not originating with them, but as the result of another party with malicious intent, then it is hardly fair to demand recompense from Telecom, he says.

“We [the institute] used to get complaints about fax machines. A call had gone through, but the machine wasn’t working properly; the caller got charged and wanted to claim the money back. But it’s not the telecommunications company’s fault, unless the customer can clearly show that it is.”

A proposed Consumer Protection Bill will protect buyers of telecommunications, software, electricity and other services.

Telecom, meanwhile, acknowledges that it has compensated some JetStream customers for what they see as unjustified charges. “We handle each on a case-by-case basis,” says spokesman Andrew Bristol.

A director of a Christchurch security company suffering overcharging on JetStream suggests Telecom should look at the problem more systematically than case-by-case by, for example, putting software in the user’s DSL equipment to register traffic it rejects and reporting that back to Telecom.

“And then what?” asks Russell. “We still have to face the question: are we justified in asking Telecom not to charge for it if they didn’t originate it?”

Lawyer Craig Horrocks of Auckland firm Clendon Feeney doesn’t think a claim could be legally justified either, even if the new consumer laws are enacted. What needs to be passed, he says, is the Crimes Amendment No 6 Bill. Then if generation of malicious traffic is criminalised, there would be a legitimate debate as to whether a telco’s inaction was “permitting a criminal act to occur”. Even then, denial of service attacks might not be covered.

Part of the problem, the security specialist says, is that neither the customer nor Telecom can firmly pin down the source of disputed traffic. If your telephone bill included a call to Uganda, he says, Telecom could probably identify the source and establish whether it was its shortcoming or your mistake. But with digital traffic “all they see is an amount”.

The security man, who does not want to be identified because of possible future business with Telecom, says it would be fairly easy for a mischievous party to ping a DSL connection repeatedly with large blocks of data and rack up enough fallacious charges to sink a small business.

“I’d suggest, as a test, disconnecting your network from the DSL box, or setting it up to reject everything for a while. Then throw a lot of rubbish at it and see if it’s registering on your charge meter.”

Gary Benner of Tauranga’s Corporate Software was billed for 6GB one month and 13.2GB the next on an account that usually used 400MB a month. Telecom explained it as the effect of the Code Red worm, though Benner says the company had already applied the requisite IIS patches before the billing.

Benner says his alleged usage was well outside his normal pattern and should have been identified as unusual. But, he says, more is needed than compensation or identification of irregular traffic. “I’d prefer that organisations learn to be better.”

A solo home-business user complained to Telecom last year about unexplained charges (see DSL download dispute settled). His solution was to switch to Xtra’s flat-fee JetStart DSL service, but Xtra is now reported to be considering a data volume cap on that service.

Telecom sends an automatic telephone message when the user is approaching his/her designated limit for flat-rate access, but both the security specialist and the solo operator say they often receive this warning when they are already well over the limit.

Tuanz chairman Ernie Newman says it is his personal view that it is “galling” to be charged for traffic you reject. “But from the telco’s point of view, that traffic has taken up network capacity, so they might consider they are justified in recouping money for it.”

One possible point of view is that a user who takes on an “always-on” connection knows and accepts the risk of attacks resulting in overbilling.

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