Earlier this week I wrote about how AT&T suddenly started blocking the infamous imageboard 4chan.org for its 40-60 million customers. A mere 15-16 hours later the ban was suddenly, and mysteriously lifted – with little explanation from AT&T itself, save for a short and apologetic statement to TechCrunch. News quickly spread, and Mashable and several other media reported «Ceasefire declared», effectively sparing AT&T from the wratch of the Internet Hate Machine.
Even though the matter was quickly resolved, one question remains: How can one of the biggest cooperations in America, with hundreds of highly skilled PR-agents on its payroll, make the rookie mistake of blocking one of the biggest internet forums in existance – without any warning of any sort? Furthermore, a megacorp like AT&T had to understand that such an action could only be perceived as the first shot in the war of Net Neutrality – and that it would more than likely enrage the Internet Intelligensia? So why risk it?
The answer might be stranger than fiction.
My first post about this subject got nearly 12000 diggs, and my tiny blog received more than 180.000 visitors in one day. One of these employees – let’s call him «Soma» for the time being – emailed me, and had quite a story to tell. What follows is parts of the e-mail transcripts between the two of us. True or false – you decide:
My name is Soma. I work on the internet side of things in AT&T, and deal with everyone who is not a «Major Corporate account». Saying much more than that narrows down the list of people for executives to sift through and fire if truth and PR vary too much for them to let it go. Furthermore, I was at work on Sunday, which narrows the window of «who talked?» down further. AT&T is a very vindictive company – and prone to firing people for anything they choose not to like. Therefore, you will have to forgive my discreteness.
The 4chan thing was basicly a bunch of ignorant back-end network guys – primarily led by one guy – that claimed there was a SYN flood from an IP range in the 4chan IP blocks. The idiots flat out blocked the IP range, most likely thinking to themselves that «Hey, it’s Sunday, no need to wake up my boss for this».
If this backbone tech guy had done his job, he would have contacted the 4chan admin – or at least the hosting company – and given them a chance to reply. This was a flood that spanned a couple days – hours of waiting for a reply from the 4chan admin wouldn’t have delayed anything. We have dedicated policy experts scattered around our territories, and it’s not even beyond the call of duty for a average tech support agent to contact a hosting company and provide warning. Others in his department verify the SYN flood appeared to be originating from 4chan IPs and they believe it wasn’t spoofed as a few other ISP’s acknowledge similar issues.
Anyway, by 22:00 CDT on Sunday the graveyard shift for numerous departments were on the clock, and being the odd-balls that graveyarders are, we knew of 4chan and the user usage. We instantly heard about the 4chan-issue, as the DSL-side of things had already gotten a couple of hundred complaints – and I believe the U-Verse group had gotten at least 100.
By 22:45 we had gotten information to the right people and by 00:15 the «black-holed» IP range was once again opened up. At that point most of the odd-balls began taking screenshots and making PDF’s of the «death of Randall Stephenson»-posts and keeping our names out of any of the mess. We assumed the PR-department would have to weather some crap, but we all hoped it would calm down. It was tempting to let the problem build overnight, but it would have caused too much hassle – both for us and for AT&T.
But surely – after all this – the tech guy was sorry for the trouble he caused, right? … RIGHT?!
The worst part was the moron emailed everyone this morning to boast that he did the right thing. His emails to the groups that were affected (customer service-facing) sound as if a client (a customer above normal residential users) was the target, and the SYN/ACK was affecting various parts of our network – whilst in reality, it was mainly just slowing down traffic before being filtered out.
But 4Chan was definitely not blocked as a move towards censoring the internet. AT&T is rather bold when it comes to moves against the masses: About a year ago that AT&T had a job listing for about 2500 federal security clearance level jobs in San Antonio area for snooping (a joint site with the NSA, if I remember correctly), the case with the EFF is no secret, and there has been no secrecy in SBC/AT&T and the NARUS router frontier.
So what about the normal guys over at AT&T? What did they think about the whole mess?
As for what we thought? The normal 40-hour a day family man couldn’t care less than he did. The vast majority of workers had no clue – but the geeks, freaks, and techies all saw it and gave a sigh of «Great, we’ll get a shitstorm for this». Some were even tempted to let the storm come (Net neutrality doesn’t have a lot of fans among the people doing work, just the executives).
In the end, that subgroup of people that spend way too much time on the internet decided it was easier to fix the issue than to play dumb and let «the Company» eek out of it. The correct person, that also happens to know what LOLCats, 4Chan, and other internet content are, was informed of the internal ticket and 4Chan was blocked, he checked and verified the SYN/ACK traffic had ceased and removed the block.
Honestly, until the PR group posted the official AT&T response, I doubt anyone outside the ISP side knew the issue occurred and I doubt Randall Stephenson knows that his Wikipedia page was massively edited or that iReport had him listed as dead.
So there you have it; the truth behind how AT&T unwittingly fired what many will consider the first shot in the war of Net Neutrality, propelling the issue into the searchlight. True or false, Soma’s story bear the markings of a real one – and if his story checks out, I guess we owe that AT&T «do-gooder» tech guy a thanks.