Monday, October 22, 2007

Verizon's Crocodile Tears Mask a Threat to Democracy

You may have missed it in the fine print of your agreement. Phone companies like Verizon and AT&T reserve the right to block your free speech and terminate your cell phone services "without prior notice and for any reason or no reason."

That's chilling enough, but here's the shocker. There are no laws that prevent these giant companies from censoring your speech on their networks. That's right -- free speech ends at your cell phone.

Verizon's Gag Rules

Verizon's Gag Rule

This is why Verizon recently got away with blocking text messages that NARAL Pro-Choice America wanted to send to its members.

This begs the question: "If the phone company can’t tell you what to say on a phone call, then why should they be able to tell you what not to say in a text message, an e-mail or anywhere else?"

They shouldn't. But don't tell that to Verizon.

Verizon Is So Very Sorry

On Wednesday, New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky called two senior Verizon lawyers to testify at a hearing on their company's recent censorship of NARAL.

The lawyers groveled before the Assemblyman and his colleagues. Verizon was so very, very sorry about the incident that they changed some "dusty policies" so that this particular mistake would never, ever happen again. But when pressed they refused to relinquish their company's authority to censor other speech over their networks.

Verizon apologies should provide little comfort. Free Press has sifted through the agreements of several Internet and cell phone providers -- including Verizon and AT&T -- and found explicit language that reserves their right to cut off, block or permanently cease to provide services to anyone -- and for no reason.

Imagine that. Free speech over networks used by more than 230 million Americans can be denied at the whim of a Verizon and AT&T -- the same companies, by the way, which are now seeking retroactive immunity for illegally wiretapping Americans and handing over the results to the government.

A Wild West View of the Internet

Verizon's two lawyers went one further. They told Assemblyman Brodsky that their company should be free from any and all regulatory restraints. Above the law. Americans should simply trust that Verizon will do what's best for everyone -- as the Internet's sheriff, gatekeeper and undertaker all rolled into one.

So, do you trust Verizon to serve your interests?

Internet, email and text messaging are a final refuge for free speech -- at a time when other "mass media" have become the domain of a handful of powerful companies. We can't let the Internet slip into the hands of the same types of gatekeepers that now control most of what we see and hear over television and radio.

Policies not Apologies

Sen.Dorgan Takes a Stand

It's clear that the fundamental democratic principles of free speech and open communications are too important to entrust to corporate gatekeepers like these.

Lawmakers need to take decisive action to protect the free flow of information over 21st Century communications. The most important free-speech principle in communications law is nondiscrimination; and its most important application is Net Neutrality.

There are a few bright lights in all this telco darkness. One is Sen. Byron Dorgan who on Wednesday called for a congressional investigation into censorship on cell phones and the Internet. Earlier this year Dorgan joined with Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine to introduce the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act," which protects Net Neutrality under law. At the moment he needs your support and support from his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

Another bright light is New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky. At the end of his hearing this week, he pledged to re-draft and re-introduce state level legislation that would prevent phone and cable companies from smothering the free flow of information over Internet and cell phone networks.

Free Speech for the 21st Century

The other bright lights are the more than 1.5 million Americans who have called for baseline protections to our freedom to chose where we go, what we say and whom we say it to every time we boot up our computers or pick up our cell phones.

We are facing down one of the most powerful corporate lobbies Washington has ever seen. We need to match the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend to strong arm legislators, rewrite the law and distort democracy with the voices of millions more who believe the Internet must remain free, open and available to everyone.

We must fight for freedom of speech, right now in a digital world, as stubbornly as we fought for at our nation's founding.

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