Advocacy Group, Internet Host Charge 'Political Motivation' Behind Filtering of Email by Country's Largest Net Services Provider!
*** BRAD BLOG EXCLUSIVE *** [UPDATED AGAIN!]
By Brad Friedman on 7/15/2005, 3:10pm PT  

[Ed Note: Good news! Not long after this item was originally published, the issue was finally attended to and corrected by both Comcast and Symantec! See the bottom of this article for details on what happened! Thank you for making noise!]

The BRAD BLOG has learned that cable company and Internet service provider, Comcast Corporation has been automatically deleting email sent to Comcast customers with the text "www.afterdowningstreet.org" in the body of the email.

AfterDowningStreet.org ("ADS") is the citizen's coalition advocacy group organized to raise awareness of the leaked British memos and minutes referred to as the "Downing Street Documents". Those documents, first reported by Michael Smith of the Sunday Times suggest that the Bush Administration had determined to topple Saddam Hussein by military means and planned to "fix" the facts and intelligence around the policy" at least eight months prior to receiving authorization of the U.S. Congress to wage war in Iraq. At the same time, George W. Bush and administration officials were routinely telling both Congress and the American people that no tactical decisions had yet been made regarding regime change in Iraq.

(DISCLOSURE: The BRAD BLOG and an advocacy group co-founded by us, VelvetRevolution.us are members of the ADS coalition.)

The discovery that email was being secretly filtered was made after an investigation conducted by ADS co-founder, David Swanson who reported that many coalition members did not seem to be receiving email alerts and others messages being sent by the group.

"Over the past week we have been having problems reaching our members," Swanson said. "Yesterday we had a conference call scheduled that we'd announced by email and two thirds of the people didn't even know about it."

Eventually Swanson was able to determine that it was only those members of the group who receive email via the cable monolith's Comcast.net domain who were not receiving such notices.

According to a study released in January of this year by TNS Telecoms, Comcast Corporation is the nation's largest single provider of both Cable/Satellite and Internet related services in the country.

The BRAD BLOG has been able to independently confirm that email sent to two different Comcast customers with the text "www.afterdowningstreet.org" in the body of the mail, is not currently reaching those customers as expected. Though messages with only "afterdowningstreet.org" are, in fact, able to get through to those same customers without a problem.

In a statement released by People-Link.org, the Internet host for the AfterDowningStreet.org domain, the directors of the "progressive" firm charge that the filtering is politically motivated and both they and Swanson have requested people contact Comcast to complain. (Contact information at the bottom of this article.)...

While it is not uncommon for Internet Service Providers, or ISP's, to filter out messages sent to their users by domains which are known to send large amounts of unrequested junkmail, or "spam", Comcast acknowledged to Swanson that AfterDowningStreet.org was not on their list of domains alleged to have sent such email.

Swanson spoke with two different employees in the Comcast Email Abuse department, both of whom acknowleged to him that "www.afterdowningstreet.org" seems to have ended up in the Comcast email filter. He was able to receive no explanation from Comcast as to why or how that could have occurred.

When The BRAD BLOG attempted to get a statement on the matter from the Comcast Abuse Department Manager, Jim Janco, --- whom Swanson had previously dealt with in the matter --- we were told that "company policy" dictated he "can't engage with the press in any manner," but that he would ask the Comcast PR Department to get back to us.

We received a call shortly afterwards from Jeanne Russo, corporate spokesperson from the Comcast Online Division, who told us she was not aware of the problem, but would get back to us after she was able to look into it. That was several hours ago. As of this time, we have not yet heard back from her.

In a series of emails, however, shared with The BRAD BLOG between Swanson and another employee from the Comcast Abuse Department, the employee confirms the existence of the problem.

Swanson had sent emails to two different email addresses of the employee, one of which was a comcast.net address, the other at a different service provider. Until Swanson removed the "www.afterdowningstreet.org" from the body of the mail he was sending as a test to the employee, his email was not received by the Comcast employee at their Comcast.net address. The test email messages were received without a problem at the two Comcast customers alternate non-Comcast addresses.

Swanson had previously used "www.afterdowningstreet.org" as part of his automatic email signature.

Another ADS coalition member, Tim Carpenter, explained how the problem began and that he was personally unable to receive any information on the problem from Comcast.

"I called Comcast and they never confirmed for me that there was a problem with my email," Carpenter told us, "but starting Thursday, about two hours after the bombings [in London], my email started disappearing. It became clearer and clearer as the week when on that something was going on."

Swanson says that he was told by Comcast's Janco earlier this afternoon that Janco had identified the problem and that Comcast would be attempting to correct it over the next several hours. However, several other Comcast users have since confirmed that they have still be unable to receive test messages sent by both Swanson and The BRAD BLOG as of this hour.

Swanson says he was told that "there were spam complaints and that content filters automatically blocked the content of our URL, but that [Comcast] looked into it and know that we don't spam."

When he asked why Comcast hadn't looked into the matter before adding ADS to their spam filter, Swanson says he was told "Because it's automatic."

When he asked why ADS was not informed about the matter when it occured, the answer was the same, "Because it's automatic," said Swanson.

Alfredo Lopez, a director of People-Link.org, the Internet Service Provider which hosts the AfterDowningStreet.org domain and website, was able to confirm that Swanson's email left the People-Link mail servers correctly but did not reach their Comcast destinations.

"We do know that all of the email about which [Swanson's] talking was mailed out from the server, and we do know that people on Comcast were not receiving it. That much we know," said Lopez.

He said that People-Link, who identify themselves as "part of the progressive Internet movement" received no notice from Comcast about the apparent filtering.

"That is typical of a very serious spam block," Lopez said today, "because they don't want to tip off the spammer that they've been blocked."

A statement given to The BRAD BLOG by People-Link's directors suggests that there is a political motivation behind this matter. Their statement charges that Comcast is blocking "constitutionally protected expression and the fundamental right to organize and act politically on issues of concern."

Their statement goes on to say that:

Most spam blocking measures focus on the email address or the IP address of the suspected spammer. While there are anti-spam measures directed at the body of the email, these usually target attachments that could contain virus programs.

Targeting the inclusion of a website url can only have one outcome: that communications about that website and the issue it is presenting will be blocked from large numbers of people and that the communications from that site's administrators and the campaign's organizers will not reach their full constituency.

Whether comcast's intention or not, this is effectively political and unconstitutional.

The complete statement of People-Link's directors follows...

Statement from the Directors of May First/People Link

The Internet provider Comcast has repotedly admitted blocking email to its users that contains the www.afterdowningstreet.org in the email body.

This goes far beyond the normal anti-spam measures taken by major providers and represents an effective blocking of constitutionally protected expression and the fundamental right to organize and act politically on issues of concern.

Most spam blocking measures focus on the email address or the IP address of the suspected spammer. While there are anti-spam measures directed at the body of the email, these usually target attachments that could contain virus programs.

Targeting the inclusion of a website url can only have one outcome: that communications about that website and the issue it is presenting will be blocked from large numbers of people and that the communications from that site's administrators and the campaign's
organizers will not reach their full constituency.

Whether Comcast's intention or not, this is effectively political and unconstitutional.

It keeps people from getting valuable information about a campaign that is, in the opinion of many, critical to the future of this country's political system.

It disrupts the organizing of this campaign and cripples the campaign's ability to use its most effective communications tool: the Internet.

It damages people's confidence in this campaign since many people who write the campaign can't receive the response they expect and that the campaign has sent.

Perhaps the worst part of this development is that Comcast has been reportedly doing this without the knowledge of the managers of this website or anyone affiliated with this campaign. In fact, no Comcast customer has received any indication that email to him or her containing this url was blocked.

Many of us in the progressive Internet movement have long been warning about the intrusive, arrogant, disruptive, inconsiderate and effectively reactionary "access blocking" measures being taken by large Internet service providers. They take many forms and we have argued that, in the end, they lead to the same future: providers blocking access because of its content.

That future, apparently, has arrived and it is essential that everyone interested in free speech and a free Internet call or email Comcast to let it know how we feel and to warn it not to do this again.

UPDATE: Just in via Email from David Swanson:

The manager of Comcast's abuse, Jim Janco department now claims that they have a contract with Bright Mail (part of Symantec)and that Bright Mail controls the filter and refuses to lift the blog (claiming to have received 46,000 spam messages with the ADS url in them; but refusing to show us a single such message). Bright Mail also serves OTHER large ISPs, not just Comcast. According to this same person, we can complain to Bright Mail at investigation@review.symantec.com or comabsfeedback@feedback-15.brightmail.com

UPDATE 6:26pm PT: After our original report here, followed by a series of phone calls to Symantec's west coast corporate office, Bob Fertik of Democrats.com (a founding member of the ADS coaltion), was able to get confirmation that Symantec had finally unblocked "www.afterdowningstreet.com" from their automated filter!

The official line from Symantec, as Fertik reported it to us, was that the Bright Mail filter is completely automated, and due to the increasing appearance of "www.afterdowningstreet.org" in email, their automated filter kicked in. We were not able to confirm any of that with Symantec as their offices had already closed for the weekend by the time we were able to call. So we also were unable to get any additional information on what actually triggers their filtering system and what, if any, human intervention takes place.

The BRAD BLOG can now confirm, however, that email containing that text is once again flowing to Comcast.net customers! Good work to those of you who contacted both Comcast and Symantec in a hurry today!

Since the problem now seems to be fixed, we have removed the Comcast contact addresses and phone numbers from this item.

We have had scattered reports of the problem occuring on other Internet Service Providers as well, but have been unable to confirm those reports as of yet. Stay tuned to BRAD BLOG where we'll keep you updated with any further notable developments in this matter.

And thank you for making noise!