MobiTV backs away from threat to censor mobile forum

The president of a video-streaming start-up says his lawyers were a little too aggressive in making threats. The score so far: Internet users, 1. Overly aggressive lawyers, 0.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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MobiTV, a company that streams television channels to mobile devices, has backed away from its threats to censor a mobile forum Web site and pull the plug on its domain name.

Lawyers for the Emeryville, Calif., company had threatened the owner of HowardForums.com on March 4, saying that users of the Web site had posted an illegal link that allows anyone to watch television channels such as MSNBC or the Discovery Channel over the Internet for free without registering.

But after a firestorm of protest arose online, with Internet users saying that MobiTV should add greater security rather than dispatching their lawyers, the company backed down on Friday afternoon.

Paul Scanlan, president and co-founder of MobiTV, says his lawyers' intent was never to "censor the Internet" MobiTV.com

Howard Chui, 30, the founder of Howard Forums, sent me this statement from MobiTV co-founder and president Paul Scanlan, which we left unedited:

Howard, great catching up today. Again, we're big fans of the sight and our intention was never to bring your entire sight down or to "censor the Internet" like we're being accused. The irony is that is quite the opposite type of company we are and as one of the leaders in new media, we couldn't be more supportive of the rights of sights like yours. Please know that our first priority is always to fix any security issues with our system and we're doing that. Additionally, we also have a responsibility to our content and carrier partners to reduce the impact of any breaches to the system once they occur and that was really the basis for the correspondence you had with our legal team.

Scanlan's public relations department hasn't responded to my e-mail queries for the last few hours, and a phone call this afternoon to their offices rang continuously without being answered.

For his part, Chui says he's received legal threats before. But what made this unique (and led him to publicize the correspondence) was MobiTV's promise to complain to his hosting service and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and then yank his domain name, which actually did happen recently in the Wikileaks case.

"I thought I was being threatened at that point," Chui said. "They did contact the host. They contacted the host (again today) to say everything's cool now."

The contraband link in question is qtv.mobitv.com/sprintTVlive.mcd--it was apparently an XML file that lists the URLs for specific television channels. That file was disabled by Friday morning. But the individual television channels, such as rtsp://live.mobitv.com:554/1-CDMA.sdp (for MSNBC), could still be viewed at no charge by applications such as Apple's QuickTime utility on Friday.

His advice for anyone else in a similar situation: "It's a community, right? So go ask around for help if you need it."