What Were They Smoking Down at the Precinct?
Below the Belt: A Biweekly Column by NOW President Kim Gandy
October 16, 2007
Let's say you visit your local library and check out Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and The Kinsey Report, both of which are included in a conservative hit list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." Or maybe Heather Has Two Mommies, or a few books about guns and hunting.
As you leave the library, a police officer stops you and says that you cannot drive home with those "controversial" books in your car -- not on the main road anyway. You'd wonder what they were smoking down at the precinct, right?
Well, in essence, that's what Verizon Wireless did to the reproductive rights advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America in September. When the organization asked Verizon for a "short code" in order to send text messages to the cell phones of people who had requested information, Verizon said no. Other mobile networks had given NARAL the go-ahead, but Verizon contended it had the right to block messages it deemed "controversial" or "unsavory."
The news of Verizon's denial of service went public with a Sept. 27 New York Times article that positioned the dispute as a "skirmish in the larger battle over the question of 'net neutrality' -- whether carriers or Internet service providers should have a voice in the content they provide to customers." Thousands of angry customers, myself included, immediately called and wrote to Verizon. With egg on its face, the company reversed itself the same day.
Verizon's explanation was downright embarrassing -- it was just an "isolated incident" and an "incorrect interpretation of a dusty policy." Is "dusty" a new euphemism for censorship? Just what would have been a "correct" interpretation of that dusty policy?
Actually it sounds like business as usual for powerful media and telecommunications giants. Did you know that just a few months ago AT&T censored a live webcast of a Pearl Jam concert, just as lead singer Eddie Vedder was criticizing George W. Bush? In September, Fox cut off Sally Field's Emmy acceptance speech, allegedly because she said a curse word, but instead of bleeping that one word, they cut her entire anti-war comment.
Maybe Verizon did advocacy groups a huge favor when it played Big Brother. Trying to explain the concept of network neutrality--what it is and why we need it--can be a bit challenging. Many people have a hard time believing that there are corporate gatekeepers who would really limit consumer access to certain web sites, text messages or other information. Doubt no more.
To return to the library scenario, let's say the police officer would let you drive home on the main road with your choice of books, but you had to drive at a slower speed than other cars. Yeah, sounds silly.
But media giants like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner are itching to determine the speed at which various web sites are delivered to your computer, which sites will load verrrrrry slowly, and which sites won't load for that company's customers at all.
What is this all about? Well, money for one. These telecom behemoths want more of it. They want to tax online content providers in exchange for a guarantee of fast delivery of their information. So those who pay them more money will have their information appear more quickly on your computer screen -- and for nonprofits and small businesses who can't afford the going rate, well, too bad.
According to the nonpartisan media reform group Free Press, those providers intend to discriminate in favor of their own search engines, Internet phone services, and streaming video -- while slowing down or blocking their competitors. Instead of an even playing field, they want to reserve express lanes for their own content and services -- or those from big corporations that can afford the steep tolls -- and keep out anyone who poses real competition.
I suspect that ideology plays a role in addition to big bucks. In a political environment where feminists, and all liberals, are painted as unpatriotic, these companies may not be eager to rock the boat.
But whether liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, all advocacy groups and activists should be concerned. Free and open communications systems benefit people of all political stripes. Those in power must not be allowed to keep consumers in the dark, where it is easier to discriminate against, manipulate and exploit them.
With a big election on the horizon, the country needs a lively and open debate about the issues and the candidates. We want enlightened women and men entering the voting booths. Access to information is crucial to our democracy and critical to individual empowerment. Not only next year, but every year.
Our representatives in Congress have the authority to promote net neutrality, but they need to hear from their constituents who support Internet freedom. There is endless potential for the web and modern telecommunications to make information available, but that information must reach the people. Ignorance is not bliss, as we learn time and time again.
Actions | Join - Donate | Chapters | Members | Issues | Privacy | RSS | Links | Home
© 1995-2012 National Organization for Women, All Rights Reserved. Permission granted for non-commercial use.