By Karl Bode
A small Idaho Internet Service Provider (ISP) has decided to protest censorship…by blocking its users from accessing Twitter and Facebook.
“It has come to our attention that Twitter and Facebook are engaged in censorship of our customers and information,” Priest River, Idaho ISP Your T1 WIFI told its subscribers in an email.
The ISP says all users will have Facebook and Twitter blocked by default, and those that want access will need to be whitelisted. The company claims it was responding to calls from customers demanding their families and children be prevented from accessing both websites.
“Our company does not believe a website or social networking site has the authority to censor what you see and post and hide information from you, stop you from seeing what your friends and family are posting,” the email states. “This is why with the amount of concerns, we have made this decision to block these two websites from being accessed from our network.”
The provider did not respond to a request for comment, and it’s unclear what specific mechanisms it intends to use to filter access to both platforms. ISPs normally only filter access to websites that are clearly illegal, usually via an IP address blacklist on the domain name server (DNS) level.
During the Trump era, Trump allies have repeatedly claimed that social media giants are unfairly “censoring Conservatives” despite no evidence to support those claims. In fact, Facebook has been repeatedly caught letting many prominent rightwing pundits violate their terms of service to boost revenue and attention, often with no meaningful repercussion.
Those who are removed from the platforms, like Trump’s expulsion from Twitter for inciting a fatal riot at the Capitol—or conspiracy theorists being ejected for spreading false claims of electoral fraud—are usually just violating site terms of service. As such it’s not so much “censorship,” as it is a natural consequence of behaving like an asshole on the internet.
ISP owner Brett Fink confirmed the email’s authenticity to a local CBS affiliate, but contradicted his company’s own email to subscribers saying all users would have Facebook and Twitter blocked by default.
“We’ve had customers asked to be blocked by it,” Fink said. “That is what the email was about, so no we are not blocking anybody, only the ones that have asked for it.”
Often when ISPs do engage in website filtering, it causes more problems that it solves. Research has repeatedly shown such efforts are expensive to implement, easy to bypass, and frequently result in legal websites being inadvertently caught in the censorship web.
As such it’s a slippery and costly slope most internet service providers tend to avoid. Still, Blake Reid, Associate Clinical Professor at Colorado Law, told Motherboard that in the wake of the Trump administration repeal of net neutrality rules the ISP isn’t breaking federal guidelines—because they no longer exist.
“Federally speaking, in the absence of FCC net neutrality rules, ISPs certainly can do this,” Reid said. “Even under a restoration of the Obama-era net neutrality rules, this particular ISP might or might not be covered depending on what happens with the small business exemption” originally tacked onto the rules to avoid saddling small ISPs with extra costs, he added.
The ISP could still run afoul of state and local regulations, Reid said.
“If it is ultimately covered under the rules, it will no doubt inflame debates about the intersection of net neutrality and the First Amendment,” Reid said. “The notion of ISPs seeking to provide ‘curated’ Internet access has always lurked on the fringes of the debate, but an ISP blocking popular application platforms on political grounds is a very new fact pattern, especially if a lot of other ISPs followed suit.”
Providers like AT&T have been known to block access to copyrighted or illegal content, but have generally avoided heavy-handed political censorship. With current FCC boss and industry ally Ajit Pai headed for the exit and the Biden administration looking to police net neutrality violations, it’s unlikely that any major ISP would be willing to test its luck in the same way.