Internet service providers around the country have rallied to the aid of two ISPs that stood up against the might of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) and are now facing legal bills of up to $40,000.
A trust fund has been set up to help Ross Wheeler and Mark Russell pay for the legal might levied against them by the Australia Communications Authority (ACA).
Last year, the ACA took Albury Local Internet and Viper Communications to The Federal Court of Australia when they refused to join the TIO scheme on the grounds that the operator, TIO Ltd, is a government-endorsed private company and not a government body. The TIO scheme has the power to resolve disputes between service providers and their customers and all ISPs are required to join under the Telecommunications Act.
Although Justice Matthews took the view that both Wheeler and Russell were motivated by a "genuine concern as to the financial and other consequences of membership of TIO Ltd", the Court ordered them to pay the ACA's court costs.
"It was an ethics issue -- they stood up for what is true and right and they found a legal system," said Darren Worley, who set up the TIO Anti Trust Fund to help raise money for the beleaguered ISPs and has himself donated $500. More than $5000 has been pledged so far and Worley is appealing to ISPs to band together and contribute.
"Take a moment to think how well your business could withstand a $40,000 bill from the government, if the knock had come to your business instead of theirs. A donation of one hundredth of that amount will go a long way towards saving those who stood up for you."
Wheeler, who runs regional ISP Albury Local Internet, doesn't even know the exact amount he is expected to pay.
"I am still waiting for a clear response," he told ARN. "We are asking questions, but not getting any answers."
Wheeler has been taken aback by the generosity of those who have contributed to the fund, and his concerns about the TIO remain.
"It shouldn't be necessary -- the whole thing is nonsense. And how do you find somewhere between 20 and $40,000?
"We don't want to be put in the position where our business is in jeopardy, and [this funding effort] helps secure [our future]."
Albury Local Internet was one of the first regional ISPs in Australia and, to date, no complaints have been made against the company. Wheeler still has serious concerns about having to join a private company in order to gain access to the TIO scheme.
"We have to agree to pay whatever the ombudsman chooses to charge," he said. "But as a director of my company, I am not allowed to enter into a contract that could render us insolvent. We need some limitations."
"Worley, managing director of Ideal Internet, believes the current ombudsman, John Pinnock, must address some core probelms within the organisation."
"It is very disheartening," he said. "We come from the old school; we help set the industry up, and since deregulation we have been stifled. It's not a conspiracy or anything, it's the wrong people in the wrong locations."
Money donated to the TIO Anti Trust Fund will go towards the ISPs' legal expenses, rather than any one person, he said. ISPs can pledge money at via a Web site at http://tio.anti.trust.backchannel.net.