Now AT&T is crying foul, saying that it's not fair to compare Internet service providers to repressive governments, especially with the Federal Communications Commission considering imposing new neutrality rules.
"It is deeply disturbing when someone in a position of authority, like Mr. McLaughlin, is so intent on advancing his argument for regulation that he equates the outright censorship decisions of a communist government to the network congestion decisions of an American ISP," AT&T executive Jim Cicconi told the Washington Post. "There is no valid comparison, and it's frankly an affront to suggest otherwise."
Despite Cicconi's indignation, McLaughlin's original statement doesn't seem all that outrageous. A private network's decision to block particular content is objectionable. While it might not be equivalent to a government's ability to censor speech -- Internet service providers can't, say, throw people in jail for what they say online -- it's disturbing nonetheless.
What makes an ISP's ability to censor especially troubling is that most U.S. Web users can't do much about it. Some only have one possible broadband provider, while many other subscribers have a choice of exactly two -- their local telecom or cable company.
What's more, people won't necessarily know if ISPs are tinkering with traffic unless new regulations are passed. When Comcast blocked peer-to-peer traffic, it took an investigation by The Associated Press and other private organizations to uncover the traffic-shaping techniques.
Meanwhile, the debate about whether the FCC should create neutrality regulations encompasses far more than just whether to regulate "network congestion decisions."
The proposed regulations would require ISPs to provide consumers access to all lawful content and would ban networks from discriminating against sites or applications. They would also require networks to be transparent about their practices.
And they would also allow ISPs to use reasonable traffic management techniques. In other words, AT&T and other ISPs would still be allowed to shape traffic when necessary, but would have to disclose their practices to consumers.