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July 31, 2009 9:24 AM

AT&T;: Guilty Until Proven Innocent On Net Neutrality

I've been meaning to take a moment to shine a light on the recent story of AT&T; blocking 4Chan.org and how it highlights how absurd some elements of the debate on net neutrality have gotten.

As a quick background, last weekend AT&T; was caught blocking its customers from accessing a large portion of the site 4chan.org.

4chan.org is generically referred to as an imageboard website. It's barebones and offers users the ability to see, post, and comment on images of all shapes and sizes. It's also been referred to as the Internet's Sodom and Gomorrah as there tend to be no rules or limits as to the inappropriateness of what's posted. (Seriously, don't go to the site if you're squeamish, easily offended, or on a computer at work.)

When the news first broke that AT&T; was blocking the site from its users, there was an instantaneous negative reaction across the web, crying foul over this "obvious" violation of net neutrality. Everyone assumed that AT&T; was abusing its position as network operator to clamp down on free speech, to silence the voices of people they didn't want to hear from. To be honest, I assumed the same at first and shook my head in bewilderment that AT&T; would make the mistake of poking this hornet's nest of Internet jokers; this situation didn't seem destined to end well.

And yet, that wasn't at all what happened. Turns out, AT&T; wasn't alone in blocking this site, and they didn't do it to flex their muscles. Instead the truth was that a distributed denial of service attack was being launched from 4Chan's IP address, and network operators like AT&T; decided to cut it off from the rest of their networks to protect their customers from being negatively affected by it.

I find this reality interesting on a couple of levels.

One, it's remarkable how quickly net neutrality supporters are willing to start assuming that AT&T;'s actions are evil without much, if any, critical analysis. Don't get me wrong, I'm completely aware of AT&T;'s history and can see why some might think that AT&T;'s motto might be the inverse of Google's "Do no evil" mantra. But at the same time I think it's the absolute wrong thing to do to immediately assume any company is guilty of wrongdoing as that attitude makes it difficult to see and acknowledge when they do something good. Even worse is that if I were AT&T; and everyone thought everything I did was evil and no one gave me credit for anything good I was doing, at some point I might just stop trying to be good. I mean, why make any effort to do good if not only am I not going to get any credit but I'm also going to have everyone assuming that my good deed has an evil intent?

I think we have to be careful about allowing ourselves to paint any company with too broad a brush, to turn them into caricatures where we see evil in everything they do. If we want to encourage good corporate citizenship, we should celebrate when big corporations do the right thing and give them the benefit of the doubt otherwise, at least initially, because otherwise we risk looking overzealous and overly critical, like we're singling out a single company. I fear that by doing this we lessen the power of when we do have specific, valid points to criticize them on.

But back to AT&T;'s treatment of 4Chan, the other level I find this interesting is that while the immediate reaction to this event was to decry this as an example of why we need net neutrality, ultimately I actually think this is an example of why we have to be careful about pursuing a net neutrality regime that's too far-reaching. Do we really want legislation in place that prevents AT&T; from protecting its customers from a denial of service attack? Because if we go to too far of an extreme in mandating the opening up of networks that could be an unintended consequence of net neutrality. This example highlights for me some of the value inherent in having smart networks that are actively managed.

My overall thoughts on net neutrality are ideology free. I want open networks and I want smart networks. I want to make sure consumers are protected both from the selfish profit-driven motives of big corporations as well as from the bad actors that pollute the Internet with attacks like this one that AT&T; stood up to protect its customers from.

But in order to achieve policies that can protect the openness of the Internet and the rights of both consumers and corporations, we need to make sure we don't muddy up our discussions with any assumptions about any specific companies. Doing so doesn't help us make any progress as it turns our conversations less precise and encourages the rift that exists between the two sides of this controversial issue to drift further apart.

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