The Verizon Warning

New York Times, October 3, 2007

We have long been concerned about the potential threat to free speech and a free press as communications migrate from old-fashioned telephone lines, TV broadcasts and printing presses to digital networks controlled by unregulated private companies. The threat stopped being theoretical recently when Verizon Wireless censored political speech on one of its mobile services.

Verizon did the right thing after the problem was disclosed: it promptly dropped a misbegotten policy and said its new policy is to open its network to any legal communication. But alarm bells should be ringing on Capitol Hill, where industry lobbying, legislative goldbricking and Republican aversion to regulations have bottled up much-needed laws on digital communications.

Late last month, Verizon Wireless denied an application from Naral Pro-Choice America, a reproductive rights group, for a “short code,” a few numbers that a mobile phone user can use to subscribe to a particular source of text messages. Verizon said its policy was to refuse “issue oriented” text-messaging programs from any group that “seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.” The policy also said political candidates may be granted short codes if the content is, “in VZW’s sole discretion, not issue-oriented or controversial in nature.”

Leave aside for the moment the sorry spectacle of a major American company aiming to make campaigns even more substance-free than they already are. The Verizon policy was textbook censorship. Any government that tried it would be rightly labeled authoritarian. The First Amendment prohibits the United States government from anything approaching that sort of restriction.

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