For those of us with iPhones, one thing has become abundantly clear since we signed that two-year service contract: AT&T is a huge, miserable failure. Lack of tethering, MMS, dropped calls, missed texts, voicemail failures: its just one thing after another. So it really shouldn’t surprise us that AT&T has fired the first salvo in the battle for net neutrality.
For those unfamiliar with the term, net neutrality refers to the concept of an open Internet. A neutral network would be a network free of restriction on content, sites or types of equipment connected. Basically, any Internet-enabled device could connect and use the Internet for any purpose conceivable. In recent years, many advocates of an open Internet have expressed concern about the ability of Internet service providers (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, etc.) to block certain websites and services. For example, Comcast is first and foremost a cable provider; therefore, they could conceivably block websites like Hulu so their customers are forced to watch Comcast’s cable and not view their television online. Likewise, AT&T could block Skype so their customers had to use their cell phone minutes, Verizon could block Apple so people don’t realize how much they need an iPhone, etc. Proponents of net neutrality believe your service provider should provide you with an Internet hookup and not dictate what services you use while on the Internet. Many believe that, if Internet service providers were allowed to begin censoring web content, it would only be the first step in them beginning to charge users for things like e-mail, bandwidth use and special packages (i.e. Comcast beginner package gives you access to Facebook, Google, and eBay for only $19.99 per month; Upgrade to the experienced package for only $5 more and receive YouTube and Amazon!)
This vision of the Internet is obviously not what we want. While the Internet as we know it is in no way perfect, the ability for easy, open communication and distribution of information is what makes it great. An Internet connection should be an Internet connection: it should not be up to Comcast to decide what websites or services we use through the Internet. Some supporters of net neutrality include Google, Microsoft, Steve Wozniak (of Apple fame), Yahoo and Amazon, while opponents include AT&T, 3M and Alcatel.
On Sunday, reports began circulating around the Internet that AT&T DSL subscribers were unable to access 4Chan.org. 4Chan is an imageboard Web site with minimal rules on posted content. Users post anonymously, and 4Chan has been used in a variety of ways that link it to Internet sub-cultures and activist movements such as Anonymous (essentially the Internet equivalent of a gang) and Project Chanology (an online anti-Scientology movement). Previously 4Chan has been used to distribute pornography, pirated material and coordinate Internet attacks. As the day wore on, it was confirmed by 4Chan that AT&T was indeed blocking the website in several regions around the country, although the block only seemed to affect wired AT&T customers, while people using the carrier’s 3G network were unaffected. Within hours, 4Chan began organizing counter-attacks, including a plan to circulate a rumor about the death of AT&T’s CEO in an attempt to artificially lower the stock price. On Monday, AT&T effectively retreated and unblocked 4Chan, reopening the site to all of its users.
While I am in no way condoning the content on 4Chan’s website, it is the right of those users to post said content. AT&T’s service is (and should be) providing people with a connection to the Internet; It is the user’s prerogative to censor any content they don’t want to see. While the 4Chan block may not have even been legal under FCC regulations, it further raises the issue of net neutrality laws (or the lack thereof) in the United States. While net neutrality generally exists in the United States, there is no clear law protecting it. Politically, net neutrality continues to be a hot issue: seven different bills have been introduced in Congress regarding net neutrality — and each has been voted down. During his 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama pledged to make net neutrality legislation a priority during his first year in office. While he has understandably been occupied with issues like the economy and health care reform, I hope net neutrality doesn’t stay on the back burner forever. Companies like AT&T and Comcast will continue to push this issue and challenge net neutrality until more comprehensive regulation is adopted.
Ben Wagner is a tech correspondent for Rhombus and, ironically, works for Comcast. Follow him on Twitter @ben_wagner.
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