One of America's leading telecom companies, Verizon, is saying no to a request from Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group.
Saying it had the right to block "controversial or unsavory" text messages, Verizon Wireless is rejecting a plea to make its mobile network available for a text-message program. Meanwhile, other leading wireless carriers have accepted the program, which allows people to sign up for text messages from Naral by sending a message to a five-digit number known as a short code. Text messaging is a growing political tool in the United States. Such sign-up programs are used by many political candidates and advocacy groups to send updates to supporters.
AdvertisementYet, legal experts say private companies like Verizon have the legal right to decide which messages to carry. The laws that forbid common carriers from interfering with voice transmissions on ordinary phone lines do not apply to text messages.
Still, this dispute over the Naral messages is just another part of the battle regarding "net neutrality" — whether carriers or Internet service providers should have a voice in the content they provide to customers. "This is right at the heart of the problem," says Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at the University of Michigan law school, referring to the treatment of text messages. "The fact that wireless companies can choose to discriminate is very troubling."
In turning down the program, Verizon, one of the nation's two largest wireless carriers, told Naral that it does not accept programs from any group "that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users."
Meanwhile Nancy Keenan, Naral's president, says Verizon's decision interferes with political speech and activism. "No company should be allowed to censor the message we want to send to people who have asked us to send it to them. "Regardless of people's political views, Verizon customers should decide what action to take on their phones. Why does Verizon get to make that choice for them?" says Keenan.
In response, a spokesman for Verizon said that the decision was based on the subject matter of the messages and not on Naral's position on abortion. "Our internal policy is in fact neutral on the position," quoted the spokesman, Jeffrey Nelson. "It is the topic itself" — abortion — "that has been on our list."
Yet, Nelson suggested that Verizon might be rethinking its position. "As text messaging and multimedia services become more and more mainstream, we are continuing to review our content standards. "The review will be made with an eye toward making more information available across ideological and political views", he added.
One such example of Naral's text message is: "End Bush's global gag rule against birth control for world's poorest women! Call Congress. (202) 224-3121. Thnx! Naral Text4Choice."
In rejecting the Naral program, Verizon appears to be acting against its economic interests. It would have received a small fee to set up the program and additional fees for messages sent and received.