This morning NCAC woke up to a mailbox full of hundreds of complaints against AT&T’s blocking access to img.4chan.org. The mass outrage over AT&T’s action had by that time also reached the company and led to the rapid unblocking of the site. AT&T denied any attempt to censor based on content and issued the following statement justifying the block as a response to a DDOS attack:
Beginning Friday, an AT&T customer was impacted by a denial-of-service attack stemming from IP addresses connected to img.4chan.org. To prevent this attack from disrupting service for the impacted AT&T customer, and to prevent the attack from spreading to impact to our other customers, AT&T temporarily blocked access to the IP addresses in question for our customers. This action was in no way related to the content at img.4chan.org; our focus was on protecting our customers from malicious traffic. Overnight Sunday, after we determined the denial-of-service threat no longer existed, AT&T removed the block on the IP addresses in question. We will continue to monitor for denial-of-service activity and any malicious traffic to protect our customers.
DDOS attacks are a frequent occurrence, however, and AT&T has not previously blocked access to sites in response. Besides, such an attack occupies a tiny fraction of the total bandwidth through the AT&T network and is unlikely to affect it very much. As a result, an inevitable suspicion arises that it was img.4chan.org’s content that made the corporation act in this case. 4chan.org, a gathering place for pranksters, is infamous for starting internet memes (like lolcats, the “Chocolate Rain” video), largely from mockery and derision, which becomes firestorm intense, and spreads to other discussion groups. Members also formulate and drive targeted harassment campaigns. Predictably, the 4chan.org pranksters immediately launched an attack on AT&T – which might have been one of the reasons the company unblocked the site.
The larger issue here is the possibility that a corporation can block or censor websites at will. Can AT&T do that legally? According to Central Gadget it cannot:
Under the FCC’s Comcast/BitTorrent ruling, Internet Service Providers may only slow or cap connection speeds. They are not allowed to block any service or protocol on the internet. Here, 4chan as a web site appears to fall under an internet service, but it is also conforming to standard web page protocols. It appears AT&T does not have the legal right to block 4chan, only to cap customers who are “abusing” their access to the internet.
And, as we have seen in this case, even before any legal action, the angry calls of netroots activists are a very effective weapon against corporate censorship of the Internet. Still, legislation has an important role to play in this, especially as it sorts out net neutrality, the belief that ISPs should not be allowed to block or slow down traffic to any Website. The FCC is currently in the process of adopting a national broadband strategy, during which the fate of Net neutrality could be decided. It’s far from certain that net neutrality will become government policy either, despite widespread support from the public.