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Can you hear us now?

The public and Congress should be alarmed over Verizon's attempt to block a pro-choice group's messages.

September 28, 2007

NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group, recently offered a new way for members to stay in the loop: mobile-phone text messages. But the operator of the country's second most popular mobile phone network, Verizon Wireless, turned down NARAL's request for a text-messaging "short code" -- the five-digit address that NARAL members would use to get updates. The company explained that its messaging system was closed to groups with content or an agenda that "may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users."

This ill-considered decision breathed new life into the drive for "Net neutrality" rules, which would bar Internet access providers from favoring or blocking any legal content, application or service. It also may help stiffen the Federal Communication Commission's resolve to keep a small group of frequencies in the 700-megahertz band open to any device or application.

Verizon, which co-owns Verizon Wireless with European telecommunications giant Vodafone, had been a leading opponent of such regulations. In addition to vigorously lobbying Congress against Net neutrality proposals, it has asked a federal judge to throw out the FCC's openness requirements for the 700-MHz band. The company and its allies have argued that the regulations would impede innovation and that there is no evidence of network operators blocking content.

In recent months, however, Verizon Wireless and AT&T have provided some of that evidence. This summer, AT&T cut off the audio during an online broadcast of a rock concert by Pearl Jam when singer Eddie Vedder started criticizing President Bush. The company said its contractors had made a mistake, but bloggers soon dug up other instances of AT&T silencing other singers' politically charged comments, leading the telco to issue a broader apology.

Verizon Wireless' action denied its customers access to NARAL's newest communications channel. And the rationale it initially gave the group should alarm people across the political spectrum. In essence, it said that its messaging network was off-limits to those working on divisive issues. The same logic could apply to antiabortion groups, the National Rifle Assn. and stem cell researchers, to name just a few.

After NARAL's complaint reached the national media, Verizon Wireless did a quick about-face, reversing itself on Thursday. The company blamed "an incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy" and asserted that it has "great respect for this free flow of ideas." Nevertheless, by demonstrating how much power network operators wield over speech, Verizon Wireless and AT&T have strengthened the case for rules that keep the Internet free from their control or anyone else's.

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