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Christian ISP has a mission

New Net access and long distance provider Catholic Telecom wants individuals to control their own online exploits.

Catholic Telecom, an Internet service provider with a uniquely ecumenical mission, opened business today to bring Net access and long distance service to the nation's "estimated 160 million" Christians by June.

In contrast to conservative religious groups that paint the Net as a global red-light district, the company says it wants surfers to control their own online exploits.

The company offers free Cyber Patrol blocking software, which is integrated into a customized version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.

The new ISP makes no bones about the fact that it is out to make money, though subscribers will get a three percent rebate to donate to a church of any denomination or a school. Unlimited Internet dial-up service will be provided by GridNet for $19.90 per month. Other service plans range from $14.90 to $24.90 per month. Telecommunication service providers include UniDial and NTR.NET.

"While part of the mission of the company is evangelical, it will not prohibit other religions from using the service or subscribing to the service," said Paul Hassen, director of public relations for Catholic Telecom. "Not all newsgroups will be available through Catholic Telecom; things that are violent or sexual or nature will be excluded. But we will not filter Web sites; the users will self-censor those."

Although Catholic Telecom is positioning itself as an ISP, the company is in a position to mobilize its customers the same way grassroots activists have done through the Net to fight off online censorship efforts, such as the Communications Decency Act now before the Supreme Court.

"The future of the Net is community self-governance. Obviously, they are incapable of escaping the political overtones of this venture," said attorney Lance Rose, the author of NetLaw, who closely follows online freedom of speech and legal issues.

"So far, the use of online community organizing has been focused on civil liberties groups. This is another party to be heard from when they get their act together," he said.

Rose added that the ISP isn't in danger of breaking any discrimination laws in targeting Christians exclusively, unless it is discriminatory in hiring and internal practices.

Catholic Telecom plans to market its service to non-Christians if its venture proves successful, but for now it's sticking to its own.

"We are focused on providing Catholics and all Christians with safe and secure Internet access for home, school, and office, as well as long distance and advanced telecommunications services, all at below-market prices," said James Mulholland, CEO of Catholic Telecom. "At the same time, we support the evangelical efforts of the Roman Catholic Church at various levels, including the efforts of our two parent organizations: Catholic Information Center on Internet and The Path to Peace Foundation."