Responding to the public backlash over Twitter and Facebook’s decision to boot President Trump from their platforms, an internet service provider in rural Idaho told customers that it would block the popular social media networks by default. But that decision sparked a separate mini-backlash, and the company is now reportedly only blocking the sites for customers by request.
Your T1 WIFI (YTW) is an ISP serving North Idaho and the Spokane, Washington, area. A typical small-time provider with sluggish speeds and an outdated website, the company makes for a nice example of the ways that the FCC has abandoned rural communities to fend for themselves. But it found itself in the national spotlight this week after one of its customers, Krista Yep, tweeted a screenshot of an email she said she’d received from YTW.
The email, subject-lined “Blocking Sites for Censorship,” explained that many customers had contacted YTW to request the ISP block Twitter and Facebook from their homes in reaction to the social media company’s moderation actions in the wake of the Capitol Hill riots. The email said that the request was so common, it was just easier to shut off access to the platforms for all customers. Anyone who wanted to retain access to the networks in question was told to contact YTW to whitelist their account.
Beyond informing customers about the block requests, the email took a stand against censorship, saying, “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,” and it went on to clarify that it does not “condone what Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and Apple are doing either to Parler by trying to strong arm them into submission.” The last line is a reference to the deplatforming of the Parler social network for hosting calls to violence and refusing to employ moderation. YTW also said it doesn’t endorse violence.
Yep later shared another email that was allegedly written by Bret Fink, whom CBS-affiliate KREM identified as YTW’s owner. Fink said that “2/3rds” of YTW customers had requested Facebook and Twitter to be blocked. He emphasized that anyone who wants to continue accessing those sites can simply let YTW know and they won’t be blocked.
YTW did not respond to Gizmodo’s email or phone calls requesting comment. A phone number listed for Fink on YTW’s website now appears to be disconnected. But KREM spoke with Fink, and it appears he’s backtracked on the policy. “We’ve had customers asked to be blocked by it. That is what the email was about, so no we are not blocking anybody, only the ones that have asked for it,” Fink told KREM.
Just taking YTW at its word, it appears that the small ISP was making a decision to avoid overwhelming customer service headaches. That doesn’t explain why the company felt the need to thoroughly wade into the political issues at play in its email, but we’ll let that go. For whatever reason, YTW appears to have decided to only implement blocks at the request of users, a power that individuals have without YTW’s intervention, but not everyone is technically savvy.
And that’s the issue at play when an ISP issues a blanket ban on websites. Even if customers can decide they want Twitter and Facebook unblocked, they might not be fully aware that’s an option. They might not be keeping up with current events and just assume these sites have been blocked for good. What’s more, YTW could theoretically just say that it disagrees with a certain website’s views or actions and block it without giving anyone a choice.
As KREM points out, YTW serves the Spokane area and Washington state does have its own net neutrality law. It’s possible that if YTW took this situation to the extreme, it could face consequences in Washington, DC. But the national net neutrality laws were repealed by Ajit Pai’s FCC and the Trump administration. And even under the previous national protections, YTW might have qualified for a small business exemption, Blake Reid, Associate Clinical Professor at Colorado Law, told Motherboard.
The irony of an ISP censoring certain websites in order to protest censorship is obvious. But the episode is a helpful reminder that there are many layers of gatekeeping online, and focusing on one network’s decision to ban individuals for promoting violence is missing the larger point. The public is starting to see that there is a whole section of corporate America that is unelected but often acts as a fourth branch of government through decisions of their own or the pressure of customers—however misguided. You can claim you want a free internet or a free market without government enforcement of that freedom, but you can’t have both.