AT&T and Comcast know Internet content censorship is real and it works

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

I’ve seen what a world without network neutrality looks like, and it isn’t pretty. I spent a couple of weeks in China this summer with a Linux laptop and an Android phone. There was 4G mobile broadband available everywhere I went, and WiFi availability is common. But that only gets you so far.

My gmail account was blocked, along with all the other Google services I use. To get around that, I set up an Office 365 account with an alternate domain name. Microsoft appeased Beijing by doing business its way, and seems to operate without any particular restrictions. Just the restrictions that are imposed on any online company doing business on the mainland.

That meant that when I used the Bing search engine, my results were filtered to ensure I didn’t see anything that upset my Chinese hosts. I did have a VPN that occasionally let me climb over the Great Firewall, but it appeared to be playing a game of whack-a-mole with the government: an IP address that worked yesterday won’t necessarily be accessible tomorrow. I was cut off from social media. Maybe it’s healthy to take a break every so often, but government enforced abstinence is oppressive.

News was restricted. I couldn’t reach my go-to sites. The creepiest moment came in Beijing where my hotel had the BBC on its in-house TV system. While I was watching a newscast, the presenter began reading a story about unrest in western China. Halfway into her first sentence, the screen went black and stayed that way for several minutes. When it came back on, a harmless story about trade was running.

Someone was watching the live BBC feed with a quick finger on the kill switch, waiting for content that doesn’t walk the official line. Content filtering is real. It’s not a boogyman dreamed up by net neutrality advocates.

It can be done, it is being done and it’s not just about money. Without net neutrality rules, there’s nothing to prevent AT&T or Comcast or any other ISP from filtering out unflattering news or blocking websites that contradict corporate messages. That’s a power that the U.S. constitution properly denies to the U.S. government. There’s equally good reason to deny it to telecoms monopolies that have as little accountability and nearly the same degree of technical control over Internet content as the Chinese government has.

California senate bill 822 would reinstate net neutrality rules that can be the first line of defence against censorship empowered by monopoly control of the lines of communication, whether it’s in the service of politics or profit. It’s now up to governor Jerry Brown to decide if it becomes law.