AT&T Faces Backlash After Blocking 4chan

Published October 1, 2009

During a weekend in late July, AT&T temporarily blocked access to the popular Internet site, saying the move was necessary because 4chan had targeted one of AT&T’s customers with a denial of service attack.

Critics have characterized AT&T’s decision as a violation of net neutrality principles they say federal regulators should mandate.

AT&T did not divulge details of the denial of service (DoS) attack, but in general a DoS involves using an automated program to flood a targeted server or computer with so many communication requests that it becomes unable to respond to legitimate Web traffic. As a result, the victimized server or computer becomes overwhelmed and typically shuts down.

4chan is essentially a message board where anonymous, Web-savvy users share and promote their interests with other users, often including videos. But the site is also the origin of some of the Internet’s most notorious pranks, such as the practice of “Rickrolling,” in which a hyperlink is hijacked. Instead of sending a computer to the link the user intended, the link instead leads to a YouTube video of the song “Never Gonna Give You Up,” by British ’80s pop star Rick Astley.

Malicious Activities

Some pranks linked to users of 4chan are not so innocent. Several DoS attacks have been linked to users of the site.

The illegal hacking of the personal Yahoo account of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was traced back to a 4chan user, as was an Internet hoax in October 2008 claiming Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack. That false story, posted on a page at, caused Apple’s stock to plummet, though it quickly recovered.

Exploiting the Flap

When AT&T detected a DoS attack and traced it back to 4chan, supporters of government-enforced net neutrality—which would prevent Internet service providers from managing traffic on their networks—quickly pounced.

“In the end, this wasn’t a sinister act of censorship, but rather a bit of a mistake and a poorly executed, disproportionate response on AT&T’s part,” wrote 4chan founder Christopher Poole on his blog. “We’re glad to see this short-lived debacle has prompted renewed interest and debate over net neutrality and internet censorship—two very important issues that don’t get nearly enough attention.

“So perhaps this was all just a blessing in disguise,” Poole wrote, adding nothing about the DoS or its victims.

Customer Protection

Bruce Abramson, an intellectual property expert and president of the California-based Informationism, Inc., says AT&T’s decision to block the site had nothing to do with censorship and everything to do with protecting its customers.

“It’s certainly not censorship,” Abramson said. “Censorship would imply there’s someone out there who actually goes out and studies the content of what’s out there on the ‘Net and then decides what they’re going to block and what they aren’t. There was nothing that implies that AT&T blocked 4chan because of any specific content that was going through.

“Was it overzealous? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question,” Abramson said. “Do we want those involved in the Internet to take efforts to block viruses or pranks? Most people would agree that we do need some form of protection from those nuisances.

“If we want anyone, like an ISP, to fix the problems, then we need to accept that they may make mistakes,” Abramson added. “It’s the cost of running the system.”

Self-Regulation ‘Works Very Well’

Richard Bennett, a research fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, says despite the initial uproar and backlash against AT&T, the incident should serve as an example of how the marketplace can handle these issues on its own without the government getting involved.

“The incident lasted 12 hours on a Sunday afternoon and evening, less time than it takes the FCC to schedule a hearing,” said Bennett. “It was a testament to the ongoing collaboration of network operators and the 24/7 nature of network operations.

“But the incident has already acquired urban legend status and will be cited as ‘proof’ for years to come that we need a more intrusive regulatory apparatus,” Bennett added. “In fact, it makes the opposite case—that Internet self-regulation works very well indeed. The fact is that dozens if not hundreds of DoS attacks take place every day that don’t make the news.

“This one only broke through because of 4chan’s colorful content and super-caffeinated overreaction,” Bennett said.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.