Telecoms Censorship Policies Stir New Controversy

Another flap over phone companies' policies sparks the call for a federal inquiry.

Disclosures over the weekend that AT&T and Verizon reserve the right to suspend or terminate the service of customers who are critical of their conduct have prompted a call for congressional hearings on the censorship practices of the nations leading carriers.

According to AT&Ts and Verizons nearly identical service agreements, the companies can cancel the subscription of anyone who damages "the name or reputation" of AT&T or Verizon, "its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries."

The disclosures followed Verizons Sept. 27 decision to reverse a decision to block text messages from the pro-abortion group NARAL Pro-Choice America. Verizon and AT&T are also both at the center of a swirling controversy for allegedly for turning over private customer phone records to the National Security Agency.

In August, AT&T censored a live Webcast of a Pearl Jam concert, just as lead singer Eddie Vedder criticized President Bush.

"Phone companies are supposed to deliver our messages, not censor them," Ben Scott of the public advocacy group Free Press said in an Oct. 1 statement. "If the phone company cant tell you what to say on a phone call, then they shouldnt be able to tell you what to say in a text message, an e-mail or anywhere else. Congress needs to step in immediately to safeguard free speech and the free flow of information."


Click here to learn why Verizon reversed a decision to block pro-abortion text messages.

AT&T did not respond to e-mail and telephone requests for comment on the latest censorship controversy. Verizon, however, responded on its public policy blog.

According John Czwartacki, Verizons executive director of external communications, the companys policy calling for the possible cutoff of service from critical customers has been in place for nearly decade but has never been invoked.

"The provision is meant to cover clearly illegal acts that would include things such as impersonating Verizon to conduct phishing scams or to sell services using our name, or the intentional spreading [of] inaccurate information that significantly harms Verizon," Czwartacki wrote.

Josh Silver, Free Press executive director, said without congressional action, the telecoms would continue to impose policies limiting the ability of their customers to speak out.

"The censorship policies of AT&T and Verizon are what we can expect to see time and again with these corporations as gatekeepers," Silver said in a statement. "Verizons text message ban is the same as Comcast blocking our e-mail or AT&T preventing us from making phone calls. We need to put in place laws that protect our right to speak out on the Internet, on cell phones—everywhere."


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