ISPs Grapple With Censorship

Most usually shun editorial role, but war in Iraq blurs distinctions.

The war in Iraq has spawned a glut of blogs, journals, forums and Web images, but the sites delivering this real-time combat coverage are often at the mercy of the ISPs that host them.

While most ISPs shun an editorial role—viewing themselves as conduits, rather than guardians, of content—the hosts do have the right to censor controversial material, as some Webmasters discovered in the early days of the war, experts say.

"Generally, ISPs are loath to edit the content of information transmitted over their networks," said Andrew Ulmer, an attorney with Simpson Partners LLP, in San Francisco. "Theres often catchall language in acceptable-use policies allowing ISPs to remove content from their networks that people may find offensive."

When a small ISP in Florida shut down a Web site last week for posting images of American prisoners of war and deceased soldiers in Iraq, the ISPs role seemed to blur. The company, Vortech Hosting Inc., took the action after the Pentagon issued a request to news organizations not to publish recognizable images that identify POWs or the deceased soldiers, according to officials in Orlando, Fla.

By taking an editorial measure, an ISP no longer acts as a simple delivery pipe, and it could find itself liable for other content in the future, said Ulmer, who is also counsel to the California ISP Association. "Selective editorial actions taken by an ISP might weaken an ISPs argument it is only a conduit for information," he said.

Small ISPs, which are willing and able to take an individual interest in their customers sites, often implement minimal content standards. For example, CyberHost Inc., a family-owned ISP in Arlington, Va., tries to stay out of editorial decisions, but it does not allow pornographic content, said Tom McDonald, president and CEO.

"We would stay out of the content unless it were illegal or immoral, but what is illegal, and what is immoral?" he said.

McDonald said he has not come across any controversial war-related content on his customers sites, but if he did, he would likely follow the Pentagons request.

"Its a tough call," McDonald said. "My inclination is not to put [American POW images] up because the Pentagon has said it violates the Geneva Convention. Being a family-owned company, we would be more inclined to follow federal guidelines."

CyberHost does not patrol the content of its approximately 75 hosted sites, but it does review them periodically to make sure its customers links are working properly, McDonald said. Controversial material would be noticed during such reviews. "We dont police for content, but we would stumble across it," he said.