- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2001

Multinational telecommunications company Teleglobe is blocking access to thousands of Internet sites without customers' consent, a move that is drawing the ire of civil liberties groups.

The Reston, Va., company, as part of its efforts to stop unsolicited e-mail, or "spam," blocks sites devoted to political activities, prompting groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Civil Liberties Union to organize a campaign against what they call "stealth blocking."

Teleglobe sells time on its network to Internet-service providers (ISPs) that then sell it to the public. Because the blocking happens at the network level, even many ISPs do not know that blocking occurs, let alone their customers.

"Stealth blocking … is never justified, regardless of any noble purpose, since by its 'stealth' nature it violates the principle of end-user informed choice," the Global Internet Liberty Campaign and the Internet Free Expression Alliance wrote in a May 17 letter carried on their Web sites.

On the hot seat, Teleglobe is reconsidering its approach.

"We are re-examining our corporate policy towards this issue," said Teleglobe spokesman David Thompson. "We think there are alternatives out there."

The organizations that wrote the missive are coalitions that include 24 groups that have fought efforts to limit access to the Internet.

They also have been at the forefront of a legal challenge to a federal law that would force public libraries to install filters on computers with Internet access. The law was intended to curb minors' access to pornography, but lower courts have found that it violates First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. The Supreme Court agreed last week to hear the case.

The fight against stealth blocking highlights the continuous battles civil libertarians are facing against private companies that are not bound by constitutional protections as the government is, but are in the position to slam the door to the Internet.

"If they are selling Internet access, the assumption is that you can get to every site on the Internet, not just some of them," said David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Stealth blocking arises out of Teleglobe's efforts to protect customers from spam unsolicited e-mail that can contain advertisements or other messages. Teleglobe blocks sites on the basis of a list compiled by Mail Abuse Prevention Systems LLP, a Redwood City, Calif.-based company.

MAPS, as it is known, has an expansive definition of what constitutes spam. Peacefire, a Seattle site devoted to uncovering restrictions on Internet access, found itself on the list last year, according to Benett Haselton, a computer programmer who works with the group.

Peacefire's site, at www.peacefire.org, is hosted by an ISP that does business with companies that have ties to some companies that send out unsolicited e-mail. In short, Peacefire is three business relationships removed from companies that engage in "spamming," but Teleglobe's customers cannot see its site.

What makes the practice particularly insidious, according to Mr. Haselton, is that Teleglobe does not reveal this information to its customers. Instead, a user seeking the Teleglobe site gets a message saying Peacefire cannot be reached.

"They try to create the impression that the site does not exist," Mr. Haselton said.

The home page of an Asian-American anti-discrimination group is also blocked.

Though MAPS provides the public with a tool to determine whether a site is accessible, it does not make the full list public. Its list includes "tens of thousands" of Internet sites, according to Anne Mitchell, director of legal and public affairs.

Mr. Thompson conceded that Teleglobe, a $1.5 billion corporation with operations in more than 100 countries, does not tell its customers the details of how it curbs Internet access, but said officials are aware of the company's anti-spamming programs.

Teleglobe is investing $2.5 million in its own system, slated for a rollout in September, that will narrow the number of blocked sites, Mr. Thompson said. It resorted to the MAPS system in 1998 because it needed a quick solution to the congestion that spam created on its network, but was aware that it also snared innocent bystanders in its net.

"Anybody good, bad or ugly can get caught up in the mix," he said.

For its part, MAPS urges companies like Teleglobe to let its customers know about blocked sites and stresses that they are not forced to follow the MAPS list.

"It's completely voluntary, using our system," Ms. Mitchell said.

Peacefire already managed to shame San Jose, Calif.-based AboveNet, a another upstream provider like Teleglobe, into ending its curbs on users' Internet access.

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