MTN’s iffy data terms and conditions

My brother discovered a disturbing data billing trend in his mobile phone account from MTN over the last few months. He found he was being charged for data consumption when he ought to be drawing on his data bundle. His understanding was that unused data from his data bundle would be rolled over to the next month. There shouldn’t have been any data related charges in his account for those months when he was “carrying over” data from the previous month.

A customer has a query

He approached MTN and reported the billing anomalies to them. He also pointed out MTN’s data terms and conditions (reproduced below) which state that data bundles carry over and asked why he was being charged for data usage which should have been covered by his data bundle.

When he pointed out the provision in the terms and conditions which state that data bundles carry over for up to 60 days he was told that the terms and conditions are incorrect and data bundles do not, in fact, carry over.

Contractual issues

If this is, indeed, the case it presents a few problems, the first of which is that the terms and conditions are supposed to be part of MTN’s contract with its subscribers. These terms and conditions govern MTN’s data bundles and tariffs and, as a subscriber, you would have expressed your agreement to those terms at some point when you signed up for data services with MTN. Subscribers are entitled to rely on the published terms and conditions as the recordal of their agreement with the service provider and while MTN has most likely reserved the right to change its terms and conditions pretty much at will, the published version is the reference for anyone who is curious about rights and obligations.

Notwithstanding MTN’s representatives’ statements about the accuracy of the published terms, MTN should, at the very least, amend its published terms in accordance with its own procedures for these amendments. I took a look around MTN’s legal terms and there seem to be a number of terms and conditions dealing with a variety of products and services but no overarching terms that determine how and when these sorts of terms can or would be amended. This makes it that much more difficult for MTN to amend its terms at will although I am sure there is a clause squirreled away somewhere that provides this mechanism. For the time being, though, this contract with MTN allows for data bundles to be carried over and there is an argument to be made that MTN must comply with this term while it remains in effect.

Another interesting thing I noticed is how MTN will charge you a minimum data charge for so long as your data session remains open, regardless of whether you actually use any data or not. These charges are hardly significant amounts but what is significant is the practice of deducting a charge for simply keeping a session open. What is also interesting is that MTN’s various charges are rounded up. Again, probably not a significant amount of money per subscriber but it does say something about MTN.

This post may focus on MTN but it wouldn’t be surprising to see similar terms in Vodacom’s terms as well (I couldn’t find equivalent terms on Vodacom’s website but I am pretty sure they exist somewhere), not to mention the smaller networks. The take away here is that you should pay attention to these little things in your service provider’s terms and conditions. You could find yourself being charged for consumption you arguably shouldn’t be charged for and being told that the term and conditions you relied upon are somehow not reliable.

MTN’s responsibilities

Fortunately MTN has published its Key Commitments & Consumer Rights which it doesn’t seem to be complying with:

Key Commitments

In accordance with our key commitments to consumers, MTN will:

  • act in a fair, reasonable and responsible manner in all dealings with the consumer;

  • ensure that all services and products meet the specifications as contained in our licence and all the relevant laws and regulations;.

  • not unfairly discriminate against or between consumers on the basis of race, gender, sex, age, religion, belief, disability, ethnic background or sexual orientation;

  • display utmost courtesy when dealing with consumers;

  • provide consumers with information regarding services and pricing;

  • provide consumers with guidance in regard to our customer needs, upon request;

  • keep customers’ personal information confidential;

  • advise consumers to refer a complaint to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa. The Authority’s details are: telephone (011) 566 3000, fax (011) 444 1919 or email: consumer@icasa.org.za.

Consumer Rights

You, as an MTN consumer, have the following rights:

  • a right to be provided with the required service without unfair discrimination;

  • a right to choose the service provider of your choice;

  • a right to receive information in your preferred language;

  • a right to access and question records and information held by the service provider;

  • a right to the protection of your personal data, including the right not to have personal data sold to third parties without your permission;

  • a right to port a number in terms of applicable regulations;

  • a right to lodge a complaint; and

  • a right to redress.

I took the liberty of highlighting the commitment MTN is not meeting. Of course this doesn’t take into account legislation protecting consumer rights like the Consumer Protection Act. That is probably a separate post in itself.

It is pretty clear that there is a need for consumer activism, especially when it comes to the larger companies. One customer here or there may not much more than a fleeting annoyance but the social Web makes it possible for groups of customers to band together and express their collective voice. I’ve written about reputation management in the past, frequently in the context of defamation, but there is a flipside. Consumers have the power to raise their concerns in such a way that their providers can’t help but take notice. The question is whether these consumers will take the time to have their say and what those companies will do in response.

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