4chan welcomes AT&T to the rogue Internet

When a multi-billion-dollar telecom giant and the Internet's most notorious pranksters square off, who will win? Cringe handicaps the battle between AT&T and 4chan

How does that old Jim Croce song go?

You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger. And you don't mess around with 4chan. But apparently that's exactly what AT&T has done, and the fireworks have already started.

[ This isn't the first time 4chan has stirred the pot. Find out what hijinks they allegedly perpetrated with Wikipedia and Twitter | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

4chan is a rogue state unto itself, a loose collective of Internet miscreants whose pranks are generally juvenile, sometimes disgusting, often ingenious, and occasionally hilarious.

Among other things, 4chan is associated with the Anonymous campaign against the Church of Scientology, gaming Time.com's "100 most influential" geeks to land one of its leading lights at No. 1, establishing national "porn day" on YouTube, the "#gorillapenis" Twitter scam, and the LOLcats and Rickrolling memes. That's just the short list.

Its only organizational principle appears to be anarchy, and if 4chan had a motto it would probably be Stick It to Da Man.

Da man in the latest case is Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, who earned the group's ire after AT&T blocked 4chan's notorious /b/ image boards yesterday morning, followed by the entire site 12 hours later. (More details of a NSFW nature can be found on the Encyclopaedia Dramatica wiki.)

Last night CNN's citizen journalism site, iReport, featured a front-page story that Stephenson had been found dead in his beachfront home after an all-night cocaine binge with a bunch of male strippers. That fake story got nuked fairly quickly, but not before it found its way to Digg and elsewhere across the Web. (Silicon Valley Insider has screen shots of the report.) It's widely assumed that story was planted by someone at 4chan.

Though it's hard to get an accurate picture of what's really going on, it appears AT&T restored access to 4chan this morning. According to the Project AT&T message board, which was created shortly after 4chan got banned, "AT&T has lifter [sic] their ban. All rioting/'war'/protests have been suspended for the time being."

But something tells me this is far from over. The next few days ought to be interesting to watch, as a multi-billion-dollar corporation takes on a decentralized anarchic collective that seems to recognize no limits on its behavior. Even if AT&T and 4chan come to some kind of mutual agreement, this is something that's likely to happen again (and again, and again) with other collectives and other service providers.

Of course, AT&T controls a lot of broadband pipe, and it can cut off anybody it wants to. This brings up the sticky issue of Net neutrality. Was 4chan breaking the law or AT&T's network, or did the company have an issue with the site's content? Until we know why the site was banned, all we can do is speculate.

[UPDATE: After this story posted, AT&T published a statement regarding why it blocked 4chan, which reads in part:

Beginning Friday, an AT&T customer was impacted by a denial-of-service attack stemming from IP addresses connected to img.4chan.org. To prevent this attack from disrupting service for the impacted AT&T customer, and to prevent the attack from spreading to impact our other customers, AT&T temporarily blocked access to the IP addresses in question for our customers. This action was in no way related to the content at img.4chan.org; our focus was on protecting our customers from malicious traffic.

So that clears that up, I suppose. ]

No matter: As innumerable spammers, scammers, pirates, and other Net scoundrels have amply demonstrated, there's plenty of bandwidth to go around. All some service providers care about is that their payments get cleared. There's effectively no way to shut down a determined group like 4chan.

As Gawker's "Cajun Boy" notes: "AT&T didn't just open a can worms, they dove headfirst into a den of vipers." True dat. And they're not the only ones who are likely to get bit.

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Can rogue groups be stopped? Do ISPs have the right to ban whomever they feel like? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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