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Censorship’s slippery slope reveals itself in Canada
July 27th, 2005 by scaredpoet

An acrimonious situation is developing in Canada, as a strike (or lock-out, depending on what side you agree with) and labor dispute progresses between Telus, Canada’s #2 telephone and internet service provider, and the labor union representing its employees. Roughly half of Telus’ employees have walked off the job as negotiations have broken down and Telus is attempting to impose a new labor contract without a vote.

But, while the labor dispute is an important issue, this article isn’t so much about the strike/lock-out itself. It’s more about what Telus has done in response to the job action, in order to to control information about the labor dispute.

A pro-labor website supporting the workers [that link may not work if you’re a Telus customer, try using this link instead] accused Telus of blocking access to the site for its 700,000+ internet subscribers. Telus responded by not only admitting to the censorship of the site throughout the Telus network, but also announced that it was actually blocking access to three websites that are pro-labor, and intends to block any other sites that they deem to be a “threat.” It is also asking other ISPs to censor access to the the sites as well. What they say next would be hilarious, if it weren’t for the ramifications of their actions:

“It?s not an issue of censorship or freedom of speech at all,” says Jim Johannsson [Telus? director of broadband application development]. “Late last week, confidential information started showing up on this Web site.” Moreover, he says, “they were plotting to impact operations. They were plotting not denial of service, but the equivalent in the telecom world.” The plan, he says, was to coordinate a flood of calls to Telus? customer-care and contact centers, swamping the operations that, among other things, appear to be massively understaffed because of the picketing, although Johannsson says that, as yesterday, the number of employees crossing picket lines to go to work appears to have increased dramatically in at least some locations. (The union, to no surprise, denies that claim.)



The bottom line, Johannsson says, is that blocking the Web sites is “the moral and right thing to do to protect the company.” He also claims that a least the primary Web site in question, voices-for-change.com, “was operated by a Telus employee who was an active member of a radical arm of the union.” Johannsson would not identify that person by name ? the Web site is legally registered to a “Bill Bob,” a name Johannsson says is not the real name of the employee involved.

So in other words, If you call Telus’ customer care lines, then you’re contributing to this massive union conspiracy, this “voice denial-of-service attack.” It also appears that if you happen to be a union member with a website, you automatically qualify as being a member of some radical elite Labor Commando force whose sole job is to say very, very bad things about the phone company. Oooooohhhh, scary.

But sarcasm and ridiculousness of the situation aside, what Telus has done raises some hackles. Most people of similar political persuasion as myself look at this and see censorship in its basest and rawest form. How dare they control what their customers can and can’t view on their computers, through the broadband service that they pay for?

Well the sad and unfortunate thing about all of this is, they have every right to do what they are doing. And so could Verizon, or SBC, or Bellsouth, or Comcast if ever a labor dispute of the same rancor and acrimony occurred in the ‘States. In the US, the constitution applies to the government, not to private enterprise.

Congress cannot order the banning of labor messages, e-mails and websites from the ‘net; nor could George Bush order the elimination of the Democratic Party’s online existence without a fight that he’d end up losing with current law (unless he manages to brand them as a terrorist group, which he has come close to doing sometimes). But the ISPs aren’t bound by the same restrictions, and can prevent customers in their respective fifedoms from accessing the information, if they choose to do so.

Now in theory and practice (for the most part anyway), ISPs in the US generally don’t censor material… at least not to anyone’s knowledge, anyway. For now, such actions are viewed as bad business, as in theory a customer who is offended by such censorship could take their business elsewhere, costing the censoring ISP some revenue. But the reality is that consolidation continues to be in full swing; the climate for competition is cutthroat, and competitors are buying each other out. Choices are being limited, and there could come a time where a business COULD begin to control content with impunity, and the customers may not be able to walk to a competitor.

I, for one, already live in an area where my broadband choices are limited to two companies (Comcast and Verizon), both of whom I’ve had terrible customer service relations with, and I’ve amassed horror stories with both providers in terms of reliability (though lately, Verizon DSL has been very good to me… we’ll see how long that lasts). Both companies have very active political lobbies, and one has even openly talked of how it actively delays or denies certain areas advanced services in order to “punish” them for having an “adverse regulatory climate” that they deem too protective of consumers. If either of them starts such actions, I’m not sure where I’ll be able to turn to get good, uncensored broadband. And current ISP regulation doesn’t stop such censorship from happening.

This is definitely a policy issue that needs to be looked at, especially when ISPs are exempted from being responsible for the content delivered over the network, yet have the right to censor. Having all of the benefits and none the drawbacks of a “free market” is not a good thing.

One final note: this site (scaredpoet.com) does not advocate DDoS attacks, nor any other illegal activity. Telus should be aware of this, yet I get the impression that this would be yet another site that Telus might consider censorsing if they got wind of this article. If Telus wants to censor sites that are critical of the actions they’ve taken, so be it, but I strongly recommend that they think twice about making any accusations of malicious intent. I intend to vigorously defend against any such false claims.


2 Responses  
  • Penmachine words music comment writes:
    July 28th, 2005 at 2:36 am

    The continuing Telus website blocking saga

    “All you’re doing here is giving yourself bad publicity, and making people like me think of switching to other carriers for our communications services. Over the rest of my lifetime, that’s probably something like $100,000 in revenue from my househo…

  • scaredpoet.com » Telus, Union agree over website access writes:
    July 30th, 2005 at 8:21 am

    [...] Previously, Telus labeled the site a threat and had blocked access to all its broadband users, and attempted to encourage other ISPs to do the same. [...]


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