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CONSUMER CONFIDENTIAL

Corporate propriety yields to free speech

September 28, 2007|DAVID LAZARUS

Lisa Morgenstern, who also goes by the name Ariadne Morningstar, is high priestess of a Wiccan group in the Antelope Valley. She routinely uses text messages to communicate with pagan followers -- when a gathering is planned for a full moon, say, or the autumnal equinox.

"My text might say, 'Coven meeting tonight,' " Morgenstern, 43, said Thursday.

But what if her wireless provider infers from a reference to covens that its network is being used to promote black magic or even Satanism? What if the company decides it wants nothing to do with such things?

Those aren't idle questions, not in light of word surfacing this week that Verizon Wireless prevented Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, from using the company's network to send out text messages to members and others.

Verizon, after initially deeming Naral's messages too controversial, reversed course on Thursday and gave the group a green light to send out its texts.

"We made a mistake," said Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for the company. "We incorrectly denied Naral the ability to communicate with its members."

Organizations that send out or receive large quantities of text messages apply to various providers for a so-called short code, a five-digit number that allows messages to bypass spam filters.

In Naral's case, the group's texts might call on recipients to contact Congress about an abortion-related bill or administration policy.

Other leading wireless companies had accepted Naral's application. But a Verizon employee saw the group's stance in support of abortion rights as a problem.

"That person was correct if we were abiding by our own internal policy," Nelson said. "The policy was designed to protect our customers and their family members from unwanted messages."

He declined to provide a copy of the policy. But Nelson said "it had become irrelevant" amid the explosive growth of texting as a form of communication.

He said the company was now trying to work out a new policy that would accommodate the widespread use of text messages but also prevent ostensibly offensive material from traversing Verizon's network -- hate speech, for example, or porn.

The company's treatment of Naral sparked renewed discussion Thursday about the limits of free speech when large corporations control communications networks.

It also reignited debate over what's known in policymaking circles as net neutrality: the question of whether telecom providers have a right to treat various forms of content differently or whether they must adopt a neutral stance toward everything in cyberspace.

The telecom industry has lobbied aggressively in recent years to be given the right to have the last word on anything crossing its networks. Bills addressing the matter were introduced in Congress last year but didn't get anywhere.

Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a leading advocacy group for net neutrality, said Verizon's temporary blocking of Naral's messages highlighted the need for legislation that prohibited telecom companies from asserting control over online or wireless content.

"The fundamental democratic principles of free speech, privacy and open communication are too important to be entrusted to these corporate gatekeepers," he said in a statement.

"Whether it's liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, pro-choice or pro-gun, the phone companies can't get to pick and choose what messages get through. Congress needs to step in immediately to protect free speech and the free flow of information."

In a sense, the Verizon episode raises questions about what can happen when companies allow corporate ideology to influence the services they provide. What's to stop other telecom companies from censoring materials they deem offensive or simply disagree with?

"This doesn't violate the 1st Amendment because it involves private entities," said Marvin Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "But it certainly violates the spirit of the 1st Amendment."

He said telecom providers had no business deciding what could or couldn't pass through their electronic thoroughfares.

"If you're providing communications services, you keep your hands off any lawful content," Johnson said. "They might not like it, but if it's lawful, they don't mess with it.

"You can't have a little bit of free speech," he added. "You either have free speech or you don't."

But Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who specializes in free-speech cases, said the Verizon matter showed that telecom providers would respond to market forces -- in this case, outrage over perceived censorship -- and would change their policies accordingly.

"This is an example of the marketplace succeeding, not failing," he said.

Verizon's Nelson echoed this sentiment. He said the company was sensitive to the fact that people had a choice about their wireless provider.

"We work day in, day out to win business," Nelson said.

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