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When Oligopolists Interfere with Free Speech

UPDATED

NY Times: Verizon Reverses Itself on Abortion Rights Messages.

Saying it had the right to block “controversial or unsavory” text messages, Verizon Wireless has rejected a request from Naral Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group, to make Verizon’s mobile network available for a text-message program.

But the company reversed course this morning, saying it had made a mistake.

“The decision to not allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect, and we have fixed the process that led to this isolated incident,” Jeffrey Nelson, a company spokesman, said in a statement.

If this doesn’t sound the alarm in a serious way, free speech in America is in clear and present danger. We communicate increasingly via digital networks of various kinds, and Verizon’s position that it can decide what kinds of speech get through is beyond scary: It’s downright dangerous.

Verizon is now claiming that its policy is designed to prevent unwanted messages — when this was nothing of the sort. People had to sign up. The deception is transparent.

There are just a few major telecom carriers left. We cannot allow them to decide what we can talk about on these networks.

14 Comments on “When Oligopolists Interfere with Free Speech”

  1. #1 Jon Garfunkel
    on Sep 26th, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    Indeed: this is bad business sense, bad moral sense. It flies in the face of the “common carrier” doctrine. The other wireless companies have provided it. As a customer, I’ll send an email of protest.

    Verizon will have to come around on this; I suppose they will in the interest of ceding some ground in the net-neutrality debate without giving away the store (charging for QoS.)

  2. #2 JohnN
    on Sep 27th, 2007 at 6:00 am

    This is not serious is it? I wonder how long before we hear such things in the UK. Probably not. There would be an outcry. How comes there is no outcry in the US?

  3. #3 Seth Finkelstein
    on Sep 27th, 2007 at 6:57 am

    Sigh … another wolf-Wolf-WOLF … here, I’ll just quote someone else:

    From: “Sam Simon”
    Subject: RE: [IP] Verizon Rejects Messages of Abortion Rights Group
    – a try at censurship

    Dave

    I think your headline is really unfair. What is going on here of course
    should be an embarrassment to Verizon — but at the end of the day it is
    an example of how idiotic and inappropriate Terms of Service — applied
    correctly — have an absurd result, NOT a “try” at censurship.

    Having said that — this is in fact reminiscent of many similar issues
    over time that have arisen when technology changes and adapts. I have
    not seen the other carriers TOS, apparently they are ahead of the game
    on this stuff. Do you recall these same debates when 976 services were
    offered?

    Verizon is in a “just say no” posture on almost anything non-commercial
    over the TXT service offering. They mix what I would consider sound
    policy — “No alcohol advertising” — with stupid policy focused only on
    content — “txt’s that have an agenda.” wow.

    There are always tough questions in these matters, and I suspect you
    have ACLU in one corner and some of them civil rights groups in the
    other. Should carriers accept TXT campaigns that involve hate speech?
    These are not new debates.

    My guess is that most people in Verizon right now are kicking themselves
    and trying to move quickly to come up with a modern and reasonable
    policy. Maybe not one that the ACLU would jump on, but certainly better
    than what is there now.

    Sam

  4. #4 Seth Finkelstein
    on Sep 27th, 2007 at 9:18 am

    FYI, full text:

    VERIZON WIRELESS STATEMENT ON TEXT MESSAGING

    BASKING RIDGE, N.J. On Wednesday, September 26, Verizon
    Wireless received a letter from NARAL regarding the company’s policy
    on text messaging. The following statement may be attributed to
    Jeffrey Nelson, spokesperson for Verizon Wireless.

    The decision to not allow text messaging on an important,
    though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect, and we have
    fixed the process that led to this isolated incident.

    Upon learning about this situation, senior Verizon Wireless
    executives immediately reviewed the decision and determined it was an
    incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy. That policy,
    developed before text messaging protections such as spam filters
    adequately protected customers from unwanted messages, was designed
    to ward against communications such as anonymous hate messaging and
    adult materials sent to children.

    Verizon Wireless is proud to provide services such as text
    messaging, which are being harnessed by organizations and individuals
    communicating their diverse opinions about issues and topics. We
    have great respect for this free flow of ideas and will continue to
    protect the ability to communicate broadly through our messaging
    service.

  5. #5 Dan Gillmor
    on Sep 27th, 2007 at 9:38 am

    Sam Simon’s justification — TOS carried to illogical extreme — is pretty absurd itself.

    It’s not a tough question at all. Phone companies are not liable for the hateful — or worse (e.g. planning a bank robbery) — things people say to each other on voice calls, and shouldn’t be for what people say to each other in text messages, either. (The exception is spam. If I didn’t request the text or don’t have a prior relationship (a real one) with the text sender, I don’t want to see it, period.)

    Verizon’s insistence that it can decide what is carried on its network is PRECISELY the kind of problem we’re facing.

  6. #6 Raoul
    on Sep 27th, 2007 at 10:16 am

    I don’t see why Verizon or any other phone network should provide access to its subscriber list to anyone so they can send any sort of text messages to people uninterested in receiving them. I for one am not interested in getting text messages on my cellphone from anyone but my friends. I’m certainly not interested in getting messages from annoying lobbyists trying to push their point of view down my throat. Heck, if they want to lobby, let them send me snail mail, so I can recycle it upon arrival.

  7. #7 Seth Finkelstein
    on Sep 27th, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Dan, his explanation is basically exactly what Verizon said, note “it was an
    incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy.”.

    You’ve misread the issue. This isn’t like “What people can say to each other over the telephone”. This is like “What can you set up a pay number for?” – a very different topic, and one pretty commonly argued over. For another analogy. this is about Google adwords, not being thrown out of Google’s index..

    I know, I know, when the cry of WOLF! gets raised, people GET ATTENTION by chanting the correct rants – regardingless of the accuracy, or even, sanity.

    This should tell you something very depressing about “citizen media” :-( .

  8. #8 Dan Gillmor
    on Sep 27th, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    We’ll have to agree to disagree. What you can set up a pay number for is not seriously different than what you can say.

    This isn’t like a printing company refusing to print political pamphlets the owner doesn’t like. There are thousands of printers from which to choose, and it’s certain that at least a few will do it. There are a handful of text messaging networks, and we can’t let them control what messages go through the networks.

  9. #9 Seth Finkelstein
    on Sep 27th, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    I’m waiting for someone to say “Google has 65% of the search engine market. We can’t let them control who can have access to searchers”

    Go look at: https://adwords.google.com/select/contentpolicy.html

    “Advertisements and associated websites may not promote violence or advocate against a protected group.”

    Let’s imagine Google was being subjected to a campaign of demonization like the carriers are getting:

    “Oh my god, the censorship, the censorship. “advocate”? The very essence of politics is advocacy! Google must allow everyone ACCESS TO SEARCH!” [note how this last cleverly distorts the issue by conflating the search index with the advertising]

    But you don’t see this being pushed. The people who do say stuff like it don’t get Big Guns using them as poster children.

    C’mon, nobody was “control[ing] what messages go through the networks.”, in the censorware sense. That’s not what was happening, and it’s a journalistic shame such a misimpression was being created.

  10. #10 Dan Gillmor
    on Sep 28th, 2007 at 8:23 am

    These are not comparable, though I think Google’s policies are big-brotherish and am (and have been) willing to say so.

    But it’s not access to search you’re talking about. It’s the ability to use Google for advertising. There’s a big difference.

  11. #11 Seth Finkelstein
    on Sep 28th, 2007 at 10:18 am

    Exactly, there’s a big difference. This case was about the ability to use
    text messaging for advertising (roughly). NOT “Verizon’s position that it can decide what kinds of speech get through”, any more
    that Google is “deciding what kinds of speech get through” with the Adwords content policy.

    Verizon DID NOT say pro-choice messages can’t be sent. They didn’t even say Naral couldn’t send pro-choice messages like any other user. They said Naral’s application to be part of their text messaging ad system (approximately) was being rejected for content policy reasons. I think it was a wrong decision, but plenty of other oligopolist companies do that all the time.

    However, this matched certain interest keywords, so the hype machine started up. And it’s really tedious to see this sort of free-speech-at-risk screaming going on every time a telecom company is involved, since it’s so politically manipulative.

  12. #12 Dan Gillmor
    on Sep 28th, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    You’re calling something advertising that is entirely different. People have to *sign up* to receive those messages. Verizon can call it advertising, and so can you, but that doesn’t make it so.

  13. #13 Seth Finkelstein
    on Sep 28th, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    I used the words “roughly” and “approximately”, to indicate that it was a close but not truly identical description.

    Are we agreed that:

    1) There was no network-wide ban on the topic of pro-choice messages

    2) There was no general ban on Naral sending messages as an ordinary user

    and

    3) What was at issue here was a higher-level service that is sold to relatively few organizations, requires application, and is subject to a certain amount of editorial approval.

    Inversely, you can call that an instance of “free speech in America is in clear and present danger”, but that doesn’t make it so.

  14. #14 Dan Gillmor
    on Sep 28th, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    We agree on two facts that change nothing about the larger meaning of this situation. In other words, we don’t agree at all.