Municipal Broadband Systems Censor Web

Published May 1, 2007

In decisions that might become more common as cities deal with user congestion on their municipal wireless systems, two cities are blocking access to high-bandwidth content and applications.

Late last year Adel, Georgia joined Culver City, California in cutting off user access to sites that facilitate peer-to-peer (P2P) applications or carry adult content. Both cities say their efforts are designed to curtail illegal trading of copyrighted music, movies, and other video content, including adult videos and access to adult Web sites.

Critics say Adel is trying to stop the use of P2P applications that are causing major network management problems.

The city is using the CopySense Network Appliance, manufactured by Audible Magic Corp., to prohibit certain content from going to users. From its existing database, CopySense matches and blocks transmissions that are identified as illegal or sexually explicit. The technology, however, also blocks P2P networks, although many of these sites are legal.

Municipal censorship may become a growing trend as city-run networks deal with the problem of creating a large, high-speed Internet “commons” in the form of free service for all.

P2P Files Crowding System

P2P refers to Internet-based applications that allow users to exchange files directly from their PCs.

Although P2P can be used to copy and exchange copyrighted materials, such as music and movies, and result in copyright violation, the applications themselves are not illegal, nor are P2P facilitators such as LimeWire, BitTorrent, Napster, Gnutella, and KaZaA. BitTorrent, for one, has signed content licensing agreements with the major movie and television studios and now carries their content legally.

P2P also is an inherent part of multiplayer gaming, a major revenue-driver for broadband adoption.

According to Culver City officials, a CopySense network analysis showed illegal and “objectionable” files were crowding the system.

“Our campaign initially said ‘free and open WiFi access to everybody.’ As part of the incentive plan to bring pedestrian traffic to Town Plaza, people were quick to sign up, and it was clear this was going to be a popular offering,” said John Richo, Culver City director of information technology. “It was only after we saw an activity report from CopySense Appliance that we realized there were potential problems.”

Defining Legitimate Uses

Richo justifies P2P blocking by saying such content defeats the purpose of the wireless hotspot. “CopySense has allowed our Wi-Fi network to operate smoothly by identifying and blocking certain transmitted files that represent undesirable or unlawful material,” he said.

“Municipalities need to understand the challenges they will encounter when deploying these types of networks,” said Vance Ikezoye, founder and CEO of Audible Magic, in a press statement. “They will want to implement measures to ensure their citizens get a positive user experience. Unauthorized or pornographic P2P file-sharing applications can crowd out legitimate uses of the Internet and can expose the public and especially minors to unnecessary risk.”

But since, by the city’s own admission, porn and illegal file sharing make up only a portion of the content they are blocking, critics say city officials are making a subjective decision over what is or isn’t “legitimate” use.

Other Solutions Possible

Though many Internet users find such content objectionable, they should have the opportunity to filter it themselves rather than have the city determine what content they should and shouldn’t be able to receive, according to Adam Thierer, senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC. “This is supposed to be an open network,” he noted.

Controls can be provided at the user end to stop objectionable material, much like blocking software available from several different sources, Thierer said. Government officials should not be dictating what people can and can’t receive on the public network, he said.

“They’re treating everyone who uses the network like children,” Thierer said. “You don’t need to treat everyone like children when there are less restrictive means of doing this. Why should you deputize the government to determine morality?”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.