The perennially inflammatory subject of Internet censorship was back in the headlines this week as first the blogosphere and then mainstream publications like CNet News and the New York Times examined the closure of over 70 000 blogs by a hosting company.
Initially thought to be the result of US government action, it later transpired that Burst.net, the web hosting company for Blogetery, an open source blogging platform, was behind the closures.
Early reports cited federal government concerns that Blogetery was being used by the terrorist group al-Qaeda to recruit users to its ranks and disseminate seditious and dangerous information, including details of American nationals on a hit list, and how to make bombs.
The New York Times interviewed one Alexander Yusupov, who claimed to be Blogetery's owner and sole employee. He confirmed widespread blog reports that Blogetery had been closed, impacting over 70 000 blogs that used the platform.
The number may have been an exaggeration on his part, as it differs from statistics published by web host Burst.net and others.
Yusupov told the Times that executives from Burst.net, Blogetery's Web host, failed to furnish any documentation to prove federal government allegations. "They just took it down," he said.
The termination of the blogging site led to automatic termination of pages of all the users, including those who didn’t touch on al Qaeda or such sensitive issues.
Joe Marr, Burst.net's chief technology officer, later denied claims that the federal government was involved, explaining that this information was a mistake by a company employee, and that Burst.net had terminated the hosting contract for Blogetery because it hosted some objectionable content in breach of its term of conditions.
CNET reported that the blogging platform had been taken down following a FBI discovery that a blogging site was linked with the terror outfit and was used for sharing bomb-making techniques and details of Americans on the hit list of the terror outfits.
The publication reported that a Burst.net employee had sent a written response in which the following was claimed: "Please note that this was not a typical case in which suspension and notification would be the norm. This was a critical matter brought to our attention by law enforcement officials. We had to immediately remove the server."
Freedom of the internet groups appear to be getting in on the action, condemning what they see as censorship moves.
Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the New York Times that the "…tragedy is that thousands of blogs will be taken offline for no good reason."
Hundreds of blogs heatedly discussed the issue, alleging that thousands of innocent blogs were being penalised due to the action of one rogue webmaster – a young North Carolina operator of a blog identified as Inspire.com, who relocated to Yemen late last year.
Aside from the very serious debate on the pros and cons of Internet censorship, the moral of the story appears to be that if blog owners don't monitor the content on their sites, someone else will.