Thursday, September 27, 2007

The New Censorship

Amy Tiemann put a post on the CNET News Blog under the headline "Verizon refuses to carry activist text messages." She began with a disclaimer:

This news may hit CNET tomorrow as a New York Times cross-post, but I haven't seen anything about it yet so I wanted to be sure it was reported here.

More than twelve hours have now passed is the post was placed, and I have yet to see anything on CNET As a matter of fact, the only one of my sources for national news that seems to have felt this to be worth reporting this morning was Democracy Now! (I no longer trust the signal-to-noise ratio at the Times for anything more serious than its arts reviews.) Here is the full text of the story as Amy Goodman read it over the air:

The telecom giant Verizon is being accused of censorship for barring an abortion rights group from its network for a text-messaging program. Naral Pro-Choice America allows wireless users to receive updates by sending a text message to a five-digit number. But Verizon has blocked the number to its users, calling the program “controversial or unsavory.” Naral president Nancy Keenan said: “No company should be allowed to censor the message we want to send to people who have asked us to send it to them.”

Ms. Tiemann was quick to home in on the implications of this story:

I am no expert on Net Neutrality, but the idea that a telecom carrier will refuse to carry messages based on content is incredibly scary. Could they decide to broadcast messages sent by the Democratic party, but not Republicans? Christian messages but not Jewish? Everybody has a point of view that could be viewed as "controversial or unsavory" to someone else. I thought that controversy and open dialogue were integral parts of our democratic process. Idealism dies hard even in this day and age.

Needless to say, an item like this is as interesting for the comments it raises as for its content. This morning reader "cbratelli" was there with the usual free-market reaction:

Other carriers allowed NARAL to sign up. You are in the nice position of being able to make a unilateral decision in favor of your values. You can switch carriers today. You don't have to start a PAC, run a campaign, try to get your candidates elected, petition voters, etc. and then ultimately lose and be forced to pay for something you disagree with--which is all too common with political solutions to problems.

By switching, you not only immediately get your way, but you also produce a small but potentially cumulative pressure on Verizon to change to more conform to your values.

Competitive market choices provide a far more democratic solution--with far fewer losers--than any political campaign could hope for.

As is often the case when the free market is evangelized above all forms of governmental control, this position offers more confusion than enlightenment. It is one thing to choose the newspaper you read on the basis of its editorial stance on sensitive political issues; but the thought that choosing a telecom carrier the same way is, as Ms. Tiemann put it, "incredibly scary." Does this mean that I shall have to have one wireless plan consistent with my position on abortion rights, another based on my position on religion, and possibly yet another based on my racial background? Verizon has taken the first step down a very slippery slope; and "competitive market choices" will only plummet us further down that slope, rather than providing a new "improved" facility for the democratic expression of political positions.

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