Verizon: Abortion rights potentially "unsavory"

The cellular carrier censors a NARAL Pro-Choice text-messaging program, then backpedals.

Published September 27, 2007 7:35PM (EDT)

Today's news from the New York Times that Verizon had decided to block text messages from NARAL Pro-Choice America made a swift impression on the firm's corporate heads. Contacted about the story, the company reviewed the decision and agreed to allow the messages to go through. Executive thought bubble: We'd really like to gag those opinionated broads, but we can't afford the bad publicity.

Calling the censorship a "dusty internal policy" that preceded spam filters, Verizon's spokesperson told the Times: "We have fixed the process that led to this isolated incident." But it's not as if NARAL was attempting to text-spam just anyone. The messages would have gone out only to those who had voluntarily signed up to receive them. What's more, Verizon has said nothing about changing the policy, which appears anything but arbitrary or "dusty."

In a letter from NARAL president Nancy Keenan to Verizon, she quotes the company's legal department as having explained that the company does not accept "issue-oriented (abortion, war etc.) programs." Later Verizon added that the company does not accept programs from organizations that distribute content possibly deemed "controversial" and "unsavory." The idea that any technology company (much less the country's second-largest cellphone carrier) is picking and choosing which sorts of communication it transmits should give us the shudders. In a time when text messaging has become the medium of communication for young Americans, it's downright frightening.

Although we've all heard about companies like Google doing the will of China, this may be one of the first incidents bringing the concept of "Net neutrality" into America's living rooms. For years, groups like Public Knowledge have been pushing for legislation that would curb the power of telephone and cable companies over their users. As I learned from the Times story, until the 19th century there were no laws protecting such speech: Western Union discriminated based on the politics of the telegram sender until the government passed something called the "common carrier rule," which prevented communications companies from denying access to their services based on content.

Is it any accident that one of the first groups to experience such corporate censorship was an abortion-rights group? It's not clear to me that Verizon is water carrying for the pro-life movement. But earlier, Verizon came under fire by conservative groups for sponsoring a tour by Akon, the so-called rape rapper, who allegedly mock-raped a 14-year-old onstage at a concert in Trinidad. Make of that what you will.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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