October 24, 2007
Can Phone Companies Shut Down Activists?
Did you know that phone companies can refuse to allow activists and organizations to transmit text messages to a list of their own members, if they don't like the content? That's the upshot of the recent outrage over Verizon wireless' text message policy.
The story in a nutshell: NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) wanted to allow its own members and supporters to voluntarily subscribe to a text message service to keep them updated on issues in their area. Verizon, the second largest mobile phone carriers in the country told them it “does not accept issue-oriented programs" and refused to allow them to sign up for the service.
After a respectable amount of uproar, Verizon backed down, saying that it was “an incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy” that “was designed to ward against communications such as anonymous hate messaging and adult materials sent to children.” This doesn't really explain why they stopped Verizon from sending messages to people who signed up in order to receive them.
The issue here is not whether Verizon is legally in the right, because under the law, they are entitled to set their policies on text messaging as they wish.
Verizon has rights over your actions like Myspace does: as a private company, they can filter or control content on their systems, regardless of how the people using them feel about it. But in both cases, people feel their rights are being violated. Why? Because these feel like spaces for expression that should be free, they are like gathering places – if not fully public places, then places that the public goes and relies on for social purposes.
What's interesting about Verizon is that they couldn't apply the same restrictions on a service that relies on traditional phone numbers (instead of their shortened text message number), because discrimination on the phone system is prohibited by law, as it is considered just one of these commons paces, i.e. a "common carrier".
The question is, should these "common carrier" rules, acknowledging open access to social infrastructure as necessary for a free society and a functioning democracy, be applied to new technological services and "spaces"?
As mobile phone companies re-consolidate, various parts of the country are left with only one or two companies for coverage. Or in some cases one network is much more affordable than the others, or what if everyone you know or all your friends or business partners are on one network? All these things that limit your freedom to choose between networks. How many people can companies be allowed to affect by choosing to deny them access to information on their networks?
Text messages and other networked communications are avenues of communication used by the public – especially young people. They are used for socializing, for sharing information and for political mobilization. The outcry over Verizon's filtering shows that people are expecting to have rights of free expression through these communication networks.
Especially as actual public spaces are shut down or privatized or certain people (teenagers, boys, homeless people, people of color, activists, protestors) are policed out of them, where does the general public, or these less powerful classes get to go, to do what has always been done in public – express yourself, interact with others, communicate, and organize?
Increasingly they go to new communications networks, whether online services or text messaging. So the law needs to recognize the public aspect of these spaces and services (as they have before) and grant us some real rights there.
Similar concerns about public use and public rights on networks are raised in the current debate over Network Neutrality:
Public knowledge addresses some of these issues in the context of Net Neutrality
The Center for Democracy and Technology has an overview of Net Neutrality Issues