Momentum continues to build in Washington for a congressional investigation into the censorship polices and other anti-free speech actions of telephone and cable companies.
In an Oct. 3 letter to the commerce and judiciary committees of the Senate and House of Representatives, the Open Internet Coalition calls for hearings by Congress to consider legislation that would protect the right to communicate "without threat of censorship or other anti-consumer behavior from a handful of gatekeepers."
Over the last two weeks, the nations largest carriers have been embarrassed over public disclosures that Verizon attempted to block text messages from the pro-abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, and that an AT&T user service agreement allows the company to cancel the service of anyone who damages "the name or reputation" of AT&T or "its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries." Verizon has a similar policy.
In August, AT&T censored a live Webcast of a Pearl Jam concert, just as lead singer Eddie Vedder criticized President Bush. Comcast has terminated customer accounts for using too much capacity, despite the fact no such limits were included in their terms of service.
"The recent patterns of anti-consumer activities demonstrate that the telephone and cable companies should not be trusted to safeguard our basic Internet freedoms," the OIC letter states. "For two years, we have urged Congress to adopt legislation that would preserve an open and interconnected Internet—principles that have enabled the Internet to be the most democratic means of communication ever conceived."
Those network neutrality efforts by OIC and a number of other public advocacy groups have so far failed to gain traction with lawmakers. The telecom and cable companies contend that policymakers should trust that they would never use their market power to harm the consumers use of the Internet.
The OIC letter also notes that the telephone and carrier companies are currently lobbying Congress to either extend or make permanent a nine-year ban on Internet connections taxes by state and local governments. The ban is set to expire on Nov. 1.
"At a time when Congress is considering bestowing favors for the telecommunications and cable industries, the least these companies should be required to do is act in the public interest, in a non-discriminatory manner that protects all speech, regardless of content," the letter states.
Gigi Sohn, president of the Internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, which is a member of the OIC, said in a statement, "Congressional oversight would be very welcome at a time when the telephone and cable industries are asking Congress and the Federal Communications Commission for policies that would benefit them greatly."
Sohn said a congressional hearing should center around what policy Verizon used to stop NARAL from sending text messages, what policy AT&T had in place to censor the Pearl Jam concert, what policy Verizon and AT&T have in place to limit criticism of their companies through terms of service agreements, and what policy Comcast has to limit customer downloads without a customers knowledge.
"These are the abuses we know about. Congressional hearings could bring more to light," Sohn said.
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