Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Verizon's Latest Censorship Plan Follows a Familiar Pattern

If the past is prologue, here’s what we can expect if Verizon is allowed to become the Internet’s editor-in-chief. 

On Tuesday, Daily Dot reported that Verizon is attempting to buy its way into the news cycle by creating a tech-news site,, to compete with the likes of Wired and The Verge.

But there's a twist: According to emails from the site's editors, SugarString will ban reporters from writing any stories about Net Neutrality or U.S. surveillance programs.

The site is now staffing up -- hiring editors and reporters to produce stories that Verizon hopes will appeal to mainstream audiences. In an email to a prospective reporter, SugarString Editor Cole Stryker wrote that the ban on coverage of Net Neutrality and spying "is pretty much it as far as content restrictions go. The upside is that we have a big budget to pay people well, make video documentaries and other fun shit."

From all indications, SugarString is nothing more than a thinly veiled Verizon PR effort. And it's just the latest in the company's ongoing campaign to control all things Internet. It's a history that includes the offensive claim that Verizon has the constitutional right to censor everyone's Web content.

If the past is prologue, here's what we can expect if Verizon becomes the Internet's editor-in-chief:

1. Verizon Wants to "Edit" You

In a 2012 legal brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Verizon mangled the intent of the First Amendment to claim that the Constitution gives the phone company the right to control everyone's online information. In the brief, which was part of the company's successful bid to overturn the FCC's Open Internet Order -- Verizon argued that the First Amendment gives it the right to serve as the Internet's editor-in-chief. The company's attorneys claimed that "broadband providers possess 'editorial discretion.'" even when they are "transmitting the speech of others."

Verizon continued in this vein, asserting that "Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others." And that means that Verizon could privilege its SugarString version of the news over the content of real news sites, because the company believes it should be able to "give differential pricing or priority access" to its own content.

2. Verizon Wants a Payola Internet

Arguing before the appeals court later in 2013, Verizon lawyer Helgi Walker made the company's anti-Net Neutrality intentions all too clear, noting that Verizon wants to prioritize those websites and services that can afford to shell out for better access. She also acknowledged that the company would like to block online content from everyone that can't pay Verizon's tolls.

The judges asked whether Verizon intended to favor certain websites over others. "I'm authorized to state from my client today," attorney Walker said, "that but for these rules [i.e., the Open Internet Order] we would be exploring those types of arrangements."

In other words, Verizon wants to control your online experience and make the Internet more like cable TV, where your remote offers only the illusion of choice.

3. Verizon Wants to Sell Your Data to the NSA

Verizon has been working hand-in-glove with the NSA to monitor and collect the metadata of tens of millions of phone users. The surveillance -- taking place under a top-secret court order that Edward Snowden exposed in 2013 -- gives the NSA information on all telephone calls, both within the U.S. and between U.S. residents and those of other countries.

Companies like Verizon collect these bulk records and hand them to the federal government -- regardless of whether a phone user is suspected of any wrongdoing. Alongside AT&T and Sprint, Verizon receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the NSA in exchange for cooperating with this program.

4. Verizon Wants to Censor Text Messages

In 2007, Verizon Wireless blocked NARAL Pro-Choice America efforts to use its mobile text-message program to communicate with NARAL members. Initially Verizon told NARAL that it had banned the messages for being "controversial and unsavory." After the blocking was reported in the New York Times, the phone company backpedaled and lifted the ban. The text-message blocking was a simple glitch, a Verizon spokesman declared, and the company felt really, really bad about it.

5. Verizon Wants to Block Competing Apps

In 2011, Free Press and others caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones. Verizon had asked Google to remove 11 free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications allowed users to circumvent Verizon's $20 tethering fee and turn their smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots on their own. By blocking those applications, Verizon violated a Net Neutrality pledge it made to the FCC as a condition of the 2008 airwaves auction.

Verizon's lobbyists like to argue that the company has no incentive to censor, block or otherwise interfere with online content. As a result, they say, there is no pressing need for any oversight to protect Internet users.

One look at Verizon's history of abuse should convince anyone of the opposite.

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