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Pulling The Plug
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Electronic Censorship Of Free Speech A Growing Problem

By James Donahue

U.S. Senators Byron Dorgan and Olympia Snowe have called for a congressional hearing to investigate reports that telephone and cable companies are blocking open communications over the Internet and on cell phones.

Indeed, there has been a growing problem of censorship that appears to be slamming our free expression from sources we might least expect . . . AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Comcast and even the browser service, Internet Explorer.

For example, the Huffington Post website, which often takes a harsh look at the activities of the Bush Administration, appears to be blocked by Explorer, at least on our computer. When we attempt to click on that link, our browser always crashes. To reach the site, we use other browsers that have no problem linking to this or certain other Internet sites.

Earlier this year, the rock band Pearl Jam and an Internet watchdog group accused AT&T of censoring portions of the band's live concert cybercast which included lyrics critical of President George W. Bush. The lyrics were missing from the broadcast. AT&T blamed the "bleeped" lyrics on a Webcast vendor and said what happened was "contrary to our policy."

But Jenny Toomey, executive director of Future of Music Coalition, said the event "shows that companies like AT&T will risk the appearance of censorship by turning off the sound on a webcast that's being viewed by thousands of people, just because it works counter to their financial interests."

Toomey added: "What do you think they will do to protect their financial interests on the web when no one is looking?"

An Associated Press report last week noted that Comcast Corporation also has been found to be actively interfering with the interchange of data by high-speed Internet subscribers. The story said the allegations were confirmed through nationwide tests.

"If widely applied by other ISPs, the technology Comcast is using would be a crippling blow to . . . file-sharing networks."

The story said most of the targets by Comcast appear to involve sharing of copyright music, software and movies, but it warned that the technology also can be used to control legitimate data that is moving on line.

Comcast and other service providers note that programs designed to move music and movies from computer to computer via the Internet place heavy traffic demands on the servers that needs to sometimes be managed. Consequently, many servers use techniques to slow down this traffic while giving others priority. The Comcast technology, however, simply blocks the data, which is, in effect, hanging up on the receiver.

While there is no law requiring servers to treat everybody equally, something known as "Net Neutrality," but there are some supporting regulations. AT&T has even entertained the idea of charging some Web companies more for preferential treatment of their traffic, but backed down after coming under attack by consumer advocates.

Senators Dorgan and Snowe called for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to investigate these and other incidents, and determine if the actions are based on legitimate business policies or if more federal regulation is needed.

"The phone and cable companies have previously stated that they would never use their market power to operate as content gatekeepers and have called efforts to put rules in place to protect consumers 'a solution in search of a problem,'" the senators said.

Dorgan is among legislators who have introduced bills promoting the Net Neutrality, or equal treatment by Internet carriers.