Boycot O2

Computers + Kafka = Instant Insanity

Here is another story that is too absurd to be fiction, thus it must be real: How to (not) escape the claws of an immoral mobile phone provider. As this story has stretched out for years, let me try to tell it in chronological order.

…in the distant past

Some years ago — it must have been late 1999 or early 2000 — I was sharing an appartment with some friends of mine, one of which had the luck of being offered an internship position in the United States. Let’s call him Mr X to protect his privacy.

Mr X immediately accepted, which made his mobile phone contract with VIAG Interkom rather superfluous effective immediately and he asked me to step in for him: Several phone calls and snail-mail letters later, including photocopies of our personal ID cards and other official acts of contract transferrals which VIAG Interkom asked us to do, everyone agreed the contract had been transferred over to me.

This is where we’ll skip a good bit of uneventful time.

August 2002: Zombie Time!

VIAG Interkom, which in the scope of international merging and expansion had decided to call itself O2 as of 1. May 2002, offered to prolong the contract for another two years — and get a new mobile phone as a reward, an offer I gladly accepted at the time. Due to problems with my old VIAG Interkom SIM card, they also wanted to send me a new one. That however never arrived.

As you can see from the date, I had by now begun working full-time for Free Software Foundation Europe and was travelling most of the year. There was not a whole lot of time to get my mobile phone back working, so I had to find some solution fast. Several phone calls later I found out that O2 had sent the SIM card to Mr X’s name at my address — apparently his contract data had risen from the dead and killed mine.

By visiting one of their stores physically, taking a SIM card off the hands of one of their employees before they could also send this one into nirvana, I managed to get my mobile phone back to work.

Also, I repeatedly tried exorcising the rampant zombie contract. This was made impossible by one of the most excellent pieces of modern logic: "My computer does not show that the contract was transferred, so you must be wrong." There was no way to get a reality check on this. Believe me. I tried. The sky was whatever color the computer said it was, eyes, light, refraction had nothing to do with it. If the computer says its yellow with purple dots, then it is.

Given that the contract had been extended to 9. September 2004 and the basic functionality — pick up phone, call people, pay money at the end of the month — worked, I decided to let the zombie rest for the moment: I had real work to do.

August 2004: Another exorcism failed

In August 2004, after I had been pestered as Mr X both via SMS and phone calls while being on vacation in the Alps, I once more tried to get out of the contract and informed O2 that I would like to end it as soon as possible. No reply. Phone call fun again: Some discussions later, during which they did not tire to tell me that I could give them the go-ahead for another two-year contract term now and would get a new mobile phone if I did, I encountered the Zombie again:

"Our computer says the contract is with Mr X." (re-)enter circular logic revolving around a simple fact: Obviously I had to be wrong, because computers never err and no computer system ever fails.

After long discussions thathad distinctly kafkaesque qualities I finally managed to find someone who realised that contracts that could never be terminated under any circumstances might not be entirely legal.

So as a new tune it turns out they now referred to their contractual terms, which according to their own logic ("you are not our customer", remember?) I had never seen nor accepted — but which they felt bound me nonetheless: Unless terminated three months in advance, the contract automatically runs for another year.

As that smelled rather strange, I looked it up on the internet, finding out pretty quickly that German customer protection law defines this as the limit of an immoral and thus void contract. So O2 is essentially leaning against the wall legally defining immorality.

They did however tell me on the phone that they would accept ending my contract until 9. September 2005. Having wasted way too much of the time that I could have spent working for software freedom, I decided to let it rest and patiently await freedom in another year.

September 2005

"Freedom at long last!" I thought, but I was wrong. I was as much in the claws of the O2 Zombie as before, maybe even more so.

Not having received any kind of confirmation about termination of contract by the time — which is what I would have needed to keep my number when transferring to another provider — I called them twice over a couple of weeks, being told that they would immediately send the confirmation again. Not having received anything, and needing to get back on the road very soon now, I called them once more earlier today. And guess what?

"Our computer shows Mr X is our contract partner, and it shows no signs of the contract having been terminated. As you are not our customer, only Mr X can terminate that contract, and only to 9. September 2006. Until then, you can keep paying the bills."

Only the "Would you like to bind yourself for another 2 year period and get another mobile phone now?" was missing this time. I guess they got the hint of murderous lust in my voice. There is no doubt that if I asked, they would accept this from me — I can apparently do everything, only termination of the contract is impossible.

But it gets better. They also said they never approved termination of contract and rather sent a formal denial of termination last year. Guess where? To Mr X at my home address. Having been told by me repeatedly since 2002 that Mr X cannot be reached under this address, they might as well have sent it to "Santa Clause, North Pole" for all that this was worth.

In a perfect world, one might think that "if it bounces back to me as undeliverable, it wasn’t recieved" was an obvious conclusion to reach. The idea "if the bills are delivered under the name Georg Greve at this address and there is this Georg Greve guy writing us all these letters while we had no contact with Mr X for years, maybe we ought to send it to that Georg Greve guy?" apparently seemed much too obvious, as well.

How many times does one have to tell them to not send it to Mr X and rather use my name or the return address given on the letters? When does using the Mr X name with my address become the legal equivalent of "Santa Clause, North Pole?" Is about 40 times enough? But I digress.

Anyhow: Despite informing them that I had lost contact with Mr X some time ago, O2 still says "Computers don’t err, Mr X is our customer, unless he terminates the contract, you pay."

So for all intends and purposes, I am now stuck with a zombie contract that cannot be terminated, only prolonged. On the phone O2 tells me completely contradictory things and when trying to put it into writing, no reply from their side ever reaches me as they keep sending it to Santa Clause, North Pole.

And above all, always remember: computers do not err.

As I said: Instant insanity.

Boycot O2!

So by now I’ve started searching out the German customer protection association. The immediate solution is probably to simply get myself another mobile phone and refuse to pay O2 any more money.

Anyone who wishes to show sympathy for the trouble and annoyance caused by immoral behaviour of companies such as this one: Boycot O2!

If you have a contract, terminate it — there are other mobile phone providers out there — and let them know WHY you did it. Feel free to also provide the URL of this to their customer care department so they know WHY you won’t be their customer.

And if you get mail from me telling you I have a new mobile phone number: now you know why.

About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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