The Day They Shut Down the Internet By Alfredo Lopez, People-Link

Were proof needed of the dangers and abuses implicit in the corporatization of the Internet, we’ve just been hit with a whopper.

Last month, Earthlink decided to block all email coming from Europe. That’s right! If you’re an Earthlink subscriber and somebody in Europe sent email to your Earthlink address during the first two weeks of January, you probably didn’t get it.

You may not have realized the email bounced because nobody told Earthlink’s subscribers about this block and the person whose email bounced couldn’t email you to tell you about the bounce since they were blocked. Indeed, you may be reading it for the first time here. Although the technology media caught wind of this remarkable measure and reported on it, very little mention of it was made in the major media.

When confronted by technology reporters, Earthlink’s reps reacted with the PR version of a yawn. Europe spawns a lot of “spam”, a company spokesperson said, and this block was an “experiment” in dealing with that. It would be removed in “a few days”. Earthlink didn’t even apologize!

While the stunning arrogance and lack of concern for customers’ needs might trouble Earthlink subscribers, the abuse shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s the third such major abuse incident in the last two years.

The first, that I noticed anyway, occurred the night of the initial raid on Iraq – the one U. S. officials colorfully called the “decapitation operation”. As the raid was ongoing, traffic over the Internet between the United States and other countries was curtailed or suspended entirely. Most of us couldn’t reach foreign sites or use Yahoo, whose system depends partly on off-shore servers.

Very little mention was made of this. One report I saw quoted one major provider blaming a “brief power interruption” in their operations. As ridiculous as that explanation is, the fact that if you wanted to write someone in Europe about the invasion or needed news from abroad about it, you couldn’t do that as the invasion was starting. You were shut off from the rest of the world.

Then about a year ago, Earthlink and AOL got into a beef over the spam flowing from Earthlink to AOL users and so AOL blocked Earthlink users on and off for a while – without telling any of its own members that it was doing that. In fact, it took me a half day to get someone at AOL to acknowledge that this was going on. The Earthlink people acknowledged it in, like, 30 seconds for obvious reasons.

Such unilateral shut-down is disturbingly typical of AOL which also has an arbitrary blocking system that bounces emails of identical content sent to more than 50 of its members during a 15 minute period. That’s one of its anti-spam measures and it would seem logical except that it disrupts the traffic from email lists. If you’re mass mailing to a list that includes AOL subscribers, you can’t be confident your message will get through. In fact, lists like portside routinely receive hundreds of bounced emails sent to perfectly functional AOL accounts.

At People Link, this is a major problem since we host many email lists, including portside, and we have ways to deal with it including remailing systems. They work but they also cost a lot of server overhead and lots of time.

What’s most grating is that this anti-spam measure is curtailing the rights of people to communicate with others and violating every conceivable aspect of a user/provider agreement in letter and spirit.

Most Internet users aren’t aware of these developments but industry professional are and there has been considerable discussion of the incidents and the policies behind them. Still these exchanges rotate on whether the spam problem is really so serious as to merit these extreme measures or whether the shutdowns actually do anything to stop spam.

I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s not the important issue.

What’s important here, I think, is the power these people have over your communications and how they wield it with absolute disdain for what you as an individual may want and outright hostility towards what the labor and progressive movements need.

I remember 1968, the year of student uprising and how students turned politics on its head in virtually every major country on earth. We did it here but we had no real idea what they were doing in other countries and my hunch is the students in other countries were plagued by a similar ignorance. So, while we felt the power of our own unity, we had no idea we were part of a spontaneous world movement. I think such consciousness would have made our efforts even more effective than they were.

Things have changed. Today’s progressive movements are much more “international” than ever before because the Internet makes international communications easy and quick. And easy and quick are keys elements to any organizing campaign.

Of course, this trend to “globalization” of our struggle matches the deepening globalization of capitalism and the folks who bring us capitalism are very well aware of that.

Losing the ability to communicate internationally would not only set our struggle back but it would greatly damage the potential the future holds.

We’re in the middle of two powerful developments that are about to clash. On the one hand, the progressive movements in the developed countries have made major advances in our use of the Internet. While we can’t underplay the power and success of the government’s disinformation strategy, we can say objectively that, if you want to find the truth about some event, you can find it fairly easily on the Internet. And if you want to involve yourself in some campaign or organization, no matter where you are, you can do so through the Internet.

But this explosive broadening of the progressive internet is accompanied by a shrinking of power over the technology. Today, two or three major companies have control of most Internet communications and they aggressively design their “programs” to mirror a top to bottom mentality that excludes really effective use of the medium.

To make matters more disturbing, they have now “tested” their ability to shut the sytem down, have seen the near negligible reaction to the shut-down and are moving into our future with all that in mind.

Of course, the argument about Spam is preposterous. There are several superb anti-Spam agents that can be installed on servers to provide users almost complete protection against spam. At People Link, we use one – Spam Assassin – and it filters over 90 percent of the spam coming through our email servers.

Nobody has to shut down email and nobody ever should.

Frankly, I don’t think any organization should put its communications in the hands of multi-national corporations who manipulate their workforce, user overseas labor to undercut salaries (or actually replace U.S.-based workers0, show a bristling hostility to unions and fall over themselves to cooperate with every single repressive gesture of censorship or intrusion the government comes up with. There are alternatives.

But, that aside, we have a right and an obligation to demand from all providers a guarantee that they will never use an email shut-down. It’s dangerous, it goes against the spirit of the constitution and it makes our success in the coming struggles that much more difficult.

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