Sunday, October 18, 2009

Verizon's Censorship and Net Neutrality

While looking into the presence of Internet censorship here in the United States, I ran into an interesting story from a couple years back that involves the attempted censorship of text message communication. Even though the topic does not involve the Internet, it does involve communication using technology, so I decided it is a relevant blog post topic. It is not recent news either, but it does relate to the current controversy in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over net neutrality rules, which I will discuss more in depth later on in the post.

On the same day in September 2007, the New York Times published two articles on the story in question, "Verizon Rejects Text Messages From an Abortion Rights Group" and "Verizon Reverses Itself on Abortion Messages." This topic of text message censorship caught my eye because it reminded me of Howard Rheingold's concept of smart mobs. The group whose text messages were being censored was Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group that asked to use Verizon's mobile network for a text message program that would have been used to encourage abortion rights supporters to take political action, such as making phone calls.

Verizon's official grounds for refusing to accept Naral's text message program is because it does accept text message programs in general that seek to "promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users." The problem with the public and many Verizon customers who heard about this censorship was that the only users who would be impacted by Naral's text message would be ones that signed up for it in the first place and wanted to receive updates on political action against abortion, so there was no legitimate reason for Verizon to deny it. The article about Verizon's censorship even made the front page of the New York Times, further feeding the controversy.

Due to pressure from displeased customers and the public in general, Verizon reversed its stance on the issue on the same day. Still, the incidence caused people to realize that Verizon's censorship was not actually against the law, since the laws against telephone calls being blocked did not apply to text messages. As a result, this provoked extended discussion over net neutrality rules. Net neutrality is the concept that users should have equal access to the Internet. A common analogy is to compare net neutrality and broadband carriers to telephone networks. Telephone networks provide telephone service to their customers, but they cannot control who they call or who calls them. Similarly, the concept of net neutrality states that broadband carriers should not be able to control their users' activity.

In late September 2009, the FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced the FCC would begin to formalize net neutrality rules in the United States. This has led to a string of news reports on the current discussions over net neutrality. Those in support of net neutrality state that websites like Google and Facebook owe their huge popularity and impact to the free and open Internet. However, others are worried that government intervention on behalf of net neutrality would be counterproductive. Broadband carriers would have to reevaluate how they charge for data plans and perhaps even cap how much bandwidth users get.

Genachowski did not specify how the new net neutrality rules would apply to mobile providers like Verizon. He did say he wanted the FCC to "analyze fully the implications of the principles for mobile network architectures and practice." This could eventually mean net neutrality will be applied to mobile networks and text messaging as well.

Enforcing net neutrality would go a long way in essentially eliminating unreasonable Internet censorship in the United States. By unreasonable Internet censorship, I mean censoring legal Internet material, as opposed to illegal material. Of course there are issues regarding how to enforce it effectively. At least one thing is certain, the United States is moving towards an Internet policy in congruence with its values of freedom of speech and expression.


  1. Great post, Sandy! It was really interesting to read about the Verizon scandal; I can't believe I hadn't heard about it before! Sounded like quite an interesting freedom of speech debate.

    I think we can all agree that some sort of formalized set of laws about online freedom of speech would be crucial to the continued development of the web. Yet this assumption begs a few questions. How will the internet change as regulation over it increases? What direction will the government take in pinning down online companies: traditional, or out of the box? Are traditional economic models even relevant in application to modern issues?

    Lastly, and most importantly, how can policy ever keep up with the constantly changing technology? Are there basic internet guidelines that we can lay down, in the same way that the Constitution includes a "necessary and proper" clause to allow for timelessness of laws? Without clauses like this, the legal system will be constantly behind the curve and thus many people will be unnecessarily victimized. I think we need to weigh this reality with the cost of continual development in the high-tech sector. It's a very tough decision; we owe it the large amount of attention it demands.

  2. It’s fine to include SMS and other communication media – the similarities with Internet technologies are much stronger than the differences when you look at the social issues.

    Good posting and it was good to bring in net neutrality. It would be good to see more on the underlying issues of the control battle between the Internet companies on one side and the traditional phone/cable providers on the other. Most of the argument isn’t about censorship but about bandwidth usage, etc. The phone companies want to stay in control of some content issues for economic (not political) reasons.

    This also gets to the question of whether we are actually moving to a policy of free speech and expression. An extreme example is the broadcast TV channels which tightly controlled what could be on the air. As the Internet becomes more dominated by big content aggregators (Facebook, YouTube, etc.). they can put themselves in that role, and although in principle the Internet allows anyone to go around them, in practice that’s where the eyeballs will be.