Fail and You The American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation had a hell of a week. In a spectacular display of the raw power liberated when organizational incompetence is mixed with the moral elasticity that can only be bred in an oaky cask of middle management, the company not only showed the world that it can do whatever it damn well pleases, but also that the spirit of American dissent and discourse has recently had a bit too much to drink and is dumping its gut into the toilet.
It started last weekend, when AT&T customers could no longer access 4chan, which is widely regarded as the gullet of the internet. There were theories about why this happened - be it the child pornography that sometimes pokes its eyes above water on the forum or the gruesome pictures that 4chan regulars post to cleanse the site of poseur /b/-tards. But the generally accepted explanation was that AT&T had taken objection to 4chan’s content and blocked the site. What followed was talk of a revolution, an all out attack against AT&T, which eventually fizzled out as AT&T stated that the site was blocked because of repeated denial of service attacks that had a negative impact on AT&T customers.
Initially, AT&T did nothing to help its situation, stating that the site was blocked "because of the policy department," which is a private industry way of saying "I don’t want to be held responsible for this, but it did happen." The 4chan community saw this as a confirmation that the site was blocked because of its content and continued to plan the counterattack.
Now, a casual reader needs to know a thing or two about the 4chan community to understand why what followed is more tragedy than comedy. The most newsworthy message board on 4chan is /b/, which new journalists discover about every four months when they want to scare the shit out of people who own computers. Some /b/ users, who go by the name Anonymous, know a thing or two about internet security, and they entertain themselves by breaking into people’s private e-mail accounts, MySpace accounts, and other such painfully inconsequential things. Because of this, /b/ makes a decent slow-news-day scare piece: an army of anonymous hackers are out there, and they’re reading your e-mail. Oh shit. This just got real.
When 4chan users found out about AT&T’s fuckup, the best idea they hatched was to file an AT&T's-CEO-is-dead on CNN iReport (CNN’s way of outsourcing news gathering to the internet, proving once and for all that fact checking in the internet age is easily replaced by a Digg-style voting system). CNN eventually got wise to this and deleted the story. About that time, AT&T issued a statement that they did not block 4chan because of content. Uprising quelled.
Now, I have seen the power of 4chan’s trust of technically savvy, above-average intelligence. /b/ acts best when it acts randomly. For example, a thread where one 4chan user in his thirties asked for advice about having sex with a 15 year old girl, and the other users, who know each other collectively as "Anons," tracked down this girl, her school, and contacted the school’s principal about this older man, a picture of whom hangs in the girl’s locker. With that in mind, 4chan’s flaccid response to AT&T shows that /b/ is more cruel than it is retaliatory.
The more serious half of the internet took its butthurt in a completely different direction, beating the tired drum of network neutrality, which is built on the pathologically liberal premise that free access to information over privately owned lines is a civil liberty. As causes go, network neutrality is really a spoonful of the dregs. You know, it used to be legal to carry a loaded handgun around openly in California. It was only in 1967 - when a group of Black Panthers, completely within the bounds of the law, marched on the state capitol armed - that the law changed.
I wonder, where is the armed protest to the filtering of BitTorrent packets? If the Weather Underground was still functional today, would it bomb AT&T’s office in response to blocking 4chan? How many bloggers would face the dogs and the fire hoses and the night sticks and the stomping boots to protect peer-to-peer file sharing?
AT&T’s second face-plant last week was violating the sanctity of the Jesus Phone. Apple pulled the plug on the Google Voice iPhone application, and many suspect that AT&T was behind it. Google Voice lets users send free text messages, a service on which AT&T has roughly a 7,000 percent mark up. This has driven some idealistic iPhone users to dump the service, including TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington, a long time Apple mouth piece, who is taking the Libertarian-when-it’s-convenient approach of voting with his dollars. AT&T is expected to suffer losses of up to several hundred dollars per month as a result.
Now we find out that the Federal Communications Commission - a government agency that exists solely to receive letters from Bible Beaters about the horror their children were exposed to when a hacky morning show DJ let the word "shit" slip out on the air - is getting involved. Bloggers love this because they think that the government actually cares about them. If anything substantive comes from this, I’ll be very surprised.
Again, I don’t see anybody lining up to take a can of high powered pepper spray to the face over an iPhone application. Whining, definitely. Blogging, you betcha. Writing a letter to your Congressman? Well, maybe, but do they take e-mail? Abandoning your beloved iPhone for two months, standing your moral ground against the evils of AT&T to other people at the party, ruining the fun atmosphere of whiskey and marijuana with some serious political talk, and eventually reactivating the device when you just can’t live without mobile Google Maps? Now that’s a course of action we can all get on board with.
The revolution will not be televised, but you can damn well believe it will be Twittered, and then promptly forgotten as it scrolls off the screen. ®
Ted Dziuba is a co-founder at Milo.com You can read his regular Reg column, Fail and You, every other Monday.