Posted by: mutantpoodle | October 12, 2007

Hacks and Free Speech

In Wednesday’s LA Times, David Lazarus spotlighted this lovely piece of bureaucratese from AT&T and Verizon:

Buried deep within both companies’ voluminous service contracts is language that says your Net access can be terminated for any behavior that AT&T or Verizon believes might harm its “name or reputation,” or even the reputation of its business partners….

It follows an incident last month in which Verizon Wireless blocked an abortion-rights group from sending text messages over the company’s network, deeming the messages too controversial. The company subsequently backtracked from the decision.

Before that, AT&T was caught in August censoring political comments made by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder during a concert webcast. The company later said it had made a mistake.

I try to avoid the conspiracy theorist mindset, and I’ve hung around enough corporate lawyers to know that their first instinct is to indemnify themselves against any potential problem – and a bit at the end of Lazarus’s column illustrates that. (Let’s just say that AT&T is more encyclopedic in listing potential acts which might interrupt your internet service for which they may not be held responsible.)

[I should disclose here that I am a customer of AT&T, and while I have had my minor frustrations with them, I have actually found them to be extremely helpful and responsive when I call, and I am not just saying that to hang on to my broadband service.]

Still, the notion that by criticizing AT&T, I could lose internet access, seems, well, troubling.

AT&T and Verizon say they’ve never enforced the can’t-criticize-us contract terms, which have been in place for years.

But the provisions highlight yet again the danger to free expression when a relative handful of private companies serve as gatekeepers to information networks. Whether it’s a rock star ranting against President Bush or a disgruntled customer griping about shoddy service, how free is free speech in the digital era?

Especially given that AT&T and Verizon both happily forked over their customers’ phone records to the NSA without so much as a “hey – wait just a minute”, and QWEST, for not cooperating with an illegal, warrantless demand for records, faced retaliation from the NSA and other government agencies.

If you’re wondering why I called Dianne Feinstein’s office yesterday to tell her that retroactive telecomm immunity in the news FISA bill was a no-no, now you know.

In Pump up the Volume, the wonderful and under-appreciated (certainly under-watched) film that is the source of the clip above, Christian Slater plays Mark, a high school student who creates a pirate radio station and develops a cult following as he expresses the frustrations so many of his classmates harbor. He runs afoul of the FCC, which, in the scene above, is triangulating his signal to catch him. He is caught, in the end, and as he is led away, he turns to the admiring throng, and tells them to “Talk Hard.”

It’s is bad enough, as Mark says, that a political hack could be in charge of free speech. But at least political hacks are supposed to abide by what’s left of our constitution. Not so for corporate hacks – and again, why those who carry our speech – whether over the phone or internet – should be extremely circumspect about allowing themselves to favor one form of speech over another. Net neutrality, anyone?

Here’s the slippery slope: what if those ever-cautious corporate lawyers were to decide that providing phones or internet service to a Planned Parenthood clinic would damage their company’s “name or reputation”? Or maybe an organization supporting the impeachment of George Bush? Or, more directly, a group that would lobby vociferously against immunity for those same companies for their apparent violation of law in rolling over for the NSA?

Opinion blogs are the 21st century version of the pamphlets of Revolutionary war times, but subject, sadly, to a corporate middleman. We who do this rely on the good will and judgment of those who provide us our virtual distribution. It would be nice if we were leaning on something sturdier.

There is good news in all this. AT&T, at least, is reining in the lawyers:

Late Tuesday, [At&T spokesman John] Britton called back to say AT&T’s contract language would be revised in the future to reflect a more free-speech-friendly mind-set.

“We are going to clarify the policy to make clear that nobody is faced with losing service because they express an opinion about the company,” he said.

FYI, Time Warner never had any such policy. As for Verizon – you’re up.

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