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ISP censorship seen as trend

A British ISP takes down the Web site for a U.K.-based cyberliberties group, sparking worries about providers' increasing willingness to censor sites.

    Chris Ellison, a founder of a U.K.-based cyberliberties group, is upset that a British Internet service provider took down his organization's Web site. But he's more distressed about what he sees as a growing trend: ISPs' increasing willingness to censor sites hosted on their servers.

    The year-old Internet Freedom site was shut down yesterday a week after it posted the Euskal Herria Journal, a Basque-separatist site that has become a flash point for controversy on the Internet, Ellison said. Many people believe that it supports terrorists and should be removed, while others, including the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, maintain it has a right to exist.

    Protests over the site led one ISP to cut off the Journal for fear that the outcry would cripple the service along with the Basque site. Since then, cyberlibertarians have rallied around the Journal, basically saying that its right to exist is more important than its actual content.

    Internet Freedom was one of those sites that picked up the separatist site and that may have been the reason its ISP shut it down. The group, which Ellison said has 200 active members in the United Kingdom and 2,000 associate members worldwide, found a new Web host in the United States within four hours.

    According to Ellison, Internet Freedom's ISP, Easynet, told him that it had been "instructed to shut down the site by the 'antiterrorist branch' of the London police." But when he contacted Easynet this morning, he said administrators gave him a different reason for taking the site offline. They told him that they found "" while cleaning up their servers and then decided to take it down.

    Easynet representatives could not be reached for comment, but Ellison said that the exact reasons why Easynet took down his group's site are less important than the fact that they did it at all. He saw this as yet another indication that ISPs, not just online services, are censoring their own content.

    A year ago, most ISPs were reluctant to censor anything at all. Where before there was the fear of opening a door they could never shut, ISPs now seem more willing to pick and choose clients and content. Some providers are even using self-censorship as marketing tools in an effort to make the Net "safe" for children and families.

    In most other businesses, choosing clients would be considered a simple, logical business decision. But online, it raises all sorts of moral and ethical--if not legal--questions regarding free expression and censorship.

    While no one is denying that Net access firms, as private businesses, have the legal right to decide what to host, many are wondering whether the collective actions of ISPs will ultimately lead to diminished freedoms online.

    Cyberliberties advocates are especially concerned that ISPs, in an attempt to avoid government intervention, are beating potential censors to the punch. For instance, America Online removed a controversial site featuring serial killers just last week, following a letter from the governor of Wyoming objecting to the site. (See related story)

    AOL maintained it would have pulled the site regardless of who complained. But the very fact that a governor wrote AOL amounts to coercion, according to Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. The AOL incident is only one example. "I think that ISPs feel under increasing pressure from governments to censor by refusing to service controversial sites," Steinhardt said. "They are reacting in the hope that they will avoid more direct government control.

    "It's important for the Internet industry to stand up to the government. We would like to see more backbone from the industry."

    Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, warned further that once ISPs get to select what content they accept, it will be difficult for them to decide where to draw the line.

    "This is an ongoing issue," he said. "ISPs have to be very careful. Once they lift the editorial pen to the content on their sites, they may never be able to put it back down again.

    "It will be very hard in the future [for them] to resist attempts to limit other content...Once you start, where will you stop?" Rotenberg asked. "Each time an ISP blocks access to a site, it establishes a precedent, and it's a very dangerous precedent as far as speech is concerned."

    Ellison said that ISPs are putting themselves in the position of being moral arbiters of what is proper online content. "What we're seeing now is Internet service providers increasingly taking responsibility for the content that is hosted on their computers.

    "They are now saying, 'We accept responsibility and we will control material that is hosted on our site and we will subject it to our criteria as to whether it's acceptable.' I think they have no right to make judgments on [users'] behalf."

    Others say providers should be able to choose what they host. Many have taken a free-market view, saying that if there is demand for controversial material, someone will host it and it will not disappear.

    That is little comfort to those who worry about authority figures seizing power that they should not have. "I'm worried that we're going to live in a virtual world where having anything that challenges authority is considered to be completely unacceptable," added Ellison.