Commentary

AT&T: ISPs Don't Equal Repressive Regimes

The Obama administration's deputy technology officer, Andrew McLaughlin, recently caused a stir by saying that net neutrality principles prevent the type of censorship associated with repressive regimes. "If it bothers you that the China government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it," he said at a conference last week at University of Nebraska-Lincoln law school.

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."

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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.

2 comments about "AT&T: ISPs Don't Equal Repressive Regimes".
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  1. Malcolm Rasala from Real Creatives Worldwide, November 25, 2009 at 11:31 p.m.

    ISP's should be legally banned from stopping me getting any website/information I want from anywhere. Who elected either a government or ISP to ban or tinker with FREE SPEECH. Are we going to permit ISP's from acting as Dr Goebbels propaganda type regime deciding what free individuals in a free society can view. How can Americans
    castigate China for such a policy if they allow unelected companies to pursue the same policy in America. Hypocrisy No?

  2. Richard L from LW, November 26, 2009 at 11:15 a.m.

    Way to turn up the rhetoric Malcolm! The politicians clearly don't have a monopoly on blatant fear mongering - or do you really believe what you are saying?

    Traffic shaping is about prioritizing certain packets over others. If my Voip phone call or my very time sensitive real time gaming packet gets delayed because my neighbors are clogging the pipe with P2P bits (I'm sure legally sharing massive video files), I will not be happy.
    Yes, we have to keep a check on ISPs but unless you can tell me what ISPs anti-free speech agenda is, your argument just sounds ridiculous. We know approximately what China's agenda might be - suppress political opposition to the one party state. But what is AT&T evil agenda? do tell... I have yet to hear a good example of traffic blocking that amounted to censorship.

    I can't help but think that traffic shaping only protects the interests of P2P users and the vast majority of the traffic is illegal video files. Is this who we should be protecting?

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