If you want to see what the Internet will look like in a few years without net neutrality, you need look no further than this week’s stories about Verizon Wireless’ attempts to censor messages on its text-message network. Today the telecommunications giant reversed a decision it made last week to reject NARAL Pro-Choice America‘s request to make a text-message advocacy campaign available on Verizon networks. The program would allow people to sign up for text messages with NARAL by sending a five digit “short code.” These types of programs have become very popular with activist groups and political candidates.
Earlier, Verizon told NARAL 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.” Never mind that you have to sign up for the program so you don’t get unsolicited messages. If Verizon says your program is controversial or unsavory, you can always go elsewhere.
The problem with that philosophy is that “going elsewhere” is becoming less of an option. As companies gobble other companies to become giant behemoths, competition becomes scarce. The same kind of discrimination against content is happening in the Internet broadband world – in which Verizon is a major player – where there is even less competition, and where the threat of this kind of censorship has even broader implications.
Verizon and AT&T, among others, are spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress for the right to discriminate against content on the Internet it deems controversial, unsavory, or even just contrary to its own business interests. Net neutrality would protect your right to see and hear what you wish on the Internet without your service provider acting as a censor. According to the Verizon and AT&T lobbyists, net neutrality would stifle innovation. Translation: it would mean we couldn’t force you to see only what we want you to see.
So now that Verizon’s changed its mind and will allow NARAL’s campaign to move forward, does this mean we don’t need to worry? No. Verizon changed its mind this time, but it can change it again at any time. Only a federal policy of nondiscrimination in content will guarantee this doesn’t happen again.
If the Internet is to truly be a powerful force for freedom of expression, we cannot allow big business OR government to choose the content. Today, it’s Verizon shutting out NARAL. Who will it be tomorrow?