An Internet Service Provider (ISP) provides access to the Internet. An ISP can be small, like a local business that connects its users to a larger upstream provider; or it can be a big, corporate operation like AT&T or Comcast.

Even when a country has laws that shield third-party services from liability based on some of their users’ activity, such as the United States’ Communications Decency Act § 230, and the notice and takedown provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, some ISPs would rather get rid of a user (or their allegedly offending content) than be drawn into a legal dispute, even where there is no liability risk to the third-party provider.

In addition, governments and rightsholders can threaten free speech by pressuring ISPs to cut off a user's Internet access. This is showcased by "three strikes" proposals. Three strikes laws (and voluntary agreements by ISPs) would require ISPs to terminate a user’s Internet connection once that user had received a number of notifications of alleged copyright infringement. Several countries have already enacted such laws, including France and South Korea, and others are pushing for similar laws.

Even where a user’s activity could be a protected use, copyright holders have the advantage of being able to pressure an ISP to cut off that user’s Internet access, while ISPs have little incentive to fight back for their users. Laws like three strikes jeopardize users’ ability to access the Internet — and thereby to speak and get information online. Other proposals would require intermediaries like ISPs to act as IP police, including blocking access to websites that allegedly facilitate infringement.

Examples of Targeting ISPs

In one of the biggest acts of government censorship ever to focus on ISPs, the Egyptian government forced the country's six ISPs to go offline, thereby knocking out the Egyptian Internet and suffocating all online speech in the country.

The Copyright Alert System or "six strikes" program between U.S. Internet providers and the content industry provided for monitoring of your Internet usage and the delivery of warning notices about copyright infringement. Status: discontinued in 2017.