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Networking Notes: We're Just Web Tenants

Unlike public spaces that have to operate under certain constraints defined by Constitutional considerations, the many private spaces of the Internet are 'democratic' only as long as being so suits the people who are renting them out to the rest of us.

Networking Notes

By the time my account with a hosting provider had accrued its 400th gigabyte of storage, I'd stopped keeping track. When I opened an account with the company several years earlier, I was given five gigs of disk space, which was plenty to host a number of blogs and pages ... even a decent sized photo gallery. Then the company started increasing storage by a gig or two a week, occasionally announcing big jumps as it tweaked its introductory plans.

Before I knew it, I had hundreds of gigs of storage and I was beginning to think of ways to use it: offsite backups, mail archives, a place to keep originals of digital photos, a (password protected) repository for all my digital music.

But recently my provider posted a terse reminder to all its users that it was in the business of hosting Web space, and that use of those giant disk quotas for anything but Web data was prohibited. The company has a permanent storage option it charges extra for, and even though that offering is much clumsier for an accomplished Unix script-writer to work with, that's what there is for anything in the way of backups that aren't meant to be published to the Web.

My initial reaction to the reminder was pretty negative, because my first thought was "Well, I pay a certain amount per month and that space is 'mine.'" Then I thought a little longer and realized that no, the space belongs to the company that sells the disk space. A little more thought and I realized that there was very little chance that the company ever intended the space it advertises to be utilized. It's just there to help make a sale.

That's a benign example of a central truth of life on the Internet: Most of us are just tenants. Even those of us who operate our own servers are probably renting our bandwidth from someone.

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And with that realization comes a second: Unlike public spaces, where the government managing those spaces has to operate under certain constraints defined by Constitutional considerations, the many private spaces of the Internet are "democratic" only as long as being so suits the people who are renting them out to the rest of us.

Consider, for instance, the recent flap over the terms of service (ToS) AT&T had in place for its Internet users. Among other conditions, the company said it reserved the right to terminate service for users who engaged in activity that "[tended] to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries."

People were understandably bothered. AT&T is the largest ISP in the country, and it's currently at the center of a large (and growing) scandal about the ways in which it and other telecommunications companies abetted the National Security Agency (NSA) in a warrantless wiretap program that predated even 9/11. A literal reading of the ToS seemed to be reserving the right to knock users off the net for embarrassing the company at a time when it's in the spotlight for potentially illegal (and embarrassing) behavior.

Some of the more enthusiastic participants in online condemnation of AT&T's ToS cited the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as the reason AT&T's terms were inappropriate. That's the amendment that reads as follows:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Now, we have the First Amendment for a reason: Free expression is important to us as a culture. The thinking that informed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was driven not by asserting a set of particular rights created by the government, but in asserting what rights — inseparable from our essential humanity — the government could not deprive us of. In other words, you already have a right to express yourself. You were born with it. Nobody gave it to you. The fact that the Bill of Rights explicitly protects that right demonstrates how important it is to our values.

Unfortunately for the handful of AT&T ToS dissenters who were citing it, the First Amendment has little to say about an ISP giving itself the authority to squelch dissent when its customers embarrass it, because the amendment exists to constrain government —not private corporations.

That's a distinction we're all familiar with: Courts have sided with employers that search employee computers and monitor employee communications, for instance — sometimes even when the employee owns the equipment being searched — because the employer owns the network and equipment, or some of the work done on a given computer. We're not allowed to campaign for our favorite politician in a shopping mall because 1. malls are notoriously averse to anything that might cause shoppers to become distracted from their shopping and 2. the malls aren't public spaces in the sense of the word "public" that means "maintained and regulated by the government."

There's still usually a bright line between the commercial imperatives of a shopkeeper, though, and the demands of free speech. A grocery store down the street from my house, for instance, has a sign up that reminds shoppers that it has no control over political speech that happens on the sidewalk outside its doors. Oregon has a robust voter initiative system and petitioners favor hanging out where there are lots of people to solicit for signatures. I'm sure shoppers periodically complain to the store management about all the petitioners.

The sign ends with a reminder that living in a society founded on democratic principles has its occasional inconveniences.

AT&T did, by the way, end up changing its ToS not long after all the controversy, and included this statement:

"AT&T respects freedom of expression and believes it is a foundation of our free society to express differing points of view. AT&T will not terminate, disconnect or suspend service because of the views you or we express on public policy matters, political issues or political campaigns."

The company dropped mention of things that embarrass it as grounds for termination altogether, inviting activists to assume it had relieved itself of that privilege. But it also included new language:

"However, AT&T may immediately terminate or suspend all or a portion of your Service, any Member ID, electronic mail address, IP address, Universal Resource Locator or domain name used by you, without notice, for conduct that AT&T believes (a) violates the Acceptable Use Policy ..."

The company's acceptable use policy (AUP) includes the same pro-free-speech language, but also includes this a bit further down:

"Customer is prohibited from engaging in any other activity, whether legal or not, that AT&T determines in its sole discretion, to be harmful to its subscribers, operations, network(s). This includes any behavior deemed unacceptable by other ISPs, behavior which is in violation of generally acceptable practices or which causes AT&T or the AT&T IP Services to be viewed unfavorably by others."

Which put users right back where they started weeks earlier.

And which reminds us, once again, that the Internet access AT&T is renting out to its users is considerably less democratic than the sidewalk outside a grocery store.

Michael Hall has been using, maintaining and writing about networks for nearly 15 years. He's the managing editor of Enterprise Networking Planet and he blogs about Internet privacy and security at Open Networks Today. Add to del.icio.us | DiggThis


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