By ADAM LIPTAK
Published: September 28, 2007
Verizon Blocks Messages of Abortion Rights Group (September 27, 2007)
“The decision to not allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect,” said Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon, in a statement issued yesterday morning, adding that the earlier decision was an “isolated incident.”
Last week, Verizon rejected a request from the abortion rights group, Naral Pro-Choice America, for a five-digit “short code.” Such codes allow people interested in hearing from businesses, politicians and advocacy groups to sign up to receive text messages.
Verizon is one of the two largest mobile carriers. The other leading carriers had accepted Naral’s request for the code.
In turning down the request last week, Verizon told Naral that it “does not accept issue-oriented (abortion, war, etc.) programs — only basic, general politician-related programs (Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, etc.).”
In yesterday’s statement, Mr. Nelson called that “an incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy” that “was designed to ward against communications such as anonymous hate messaging and adult materials sent to children.” The policy, Mr. Nelson said, had been developed “before text messaging protections such as spam filters adequately protected customers from unwanted messages.”
But the program requested by Naral would have sent messages only to people who had asked to receive them.
Nancy Keenan, Naral’s president, expressed satisfaction yesterday. “The fight to defeat corporate censorship was won,” she said. But Ms. Keenan added that her group “would like to see Verizon make its new policy public.”
Verizon did not respond to repeated requests for copies of the policy or an explanation for why it is withholding it.
Text messaging is an increasingly popular tool in American politics and an established one abroad. In his statement, Mr. Nelson acknowledged that the technology is “being harnessed by organizations and individuals communicating their diverse opinions about issues and topics.” He said Verizon has “great respect for this free flow of ideas.”
But the company did not retreat from its position that it is entitled to decide what messages to transmit.
Legal experts said Verizon’s position is probably correct under current law, though some called for regulations that would require wireless carriers of text messages to act like common carriers, making their services available to all speakers on all topics.
“This incident, more than ever, shows the need for an open, nondiscriminatory, neutral Internet and telecommunications system that Americans once enjoyed and took for granted,” said Gigi B. Sohn, the president of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group.
Some of Verizon’s customers said they were outraged by the company’s initial stance.
Gary Mitchell, a lawyer in New Jersey, said he called a Verizon customer sales representative yesterday morning to cancel his wireless service in protest. After spending a few minutes on hold, he said, the representative read him an e-mail message that she said all the customer service representatives had just received. The message instructed representatives to tell callers that the policy had been reversed.
Verizon kept Mr. Mitchell’s business but lost some of his respect. “It was an incredibly foolish corporate decision,” he said.
Wyn Hoag, a photographer in California, said he was still mulling whether to cancel his Verizon service.
“I’m a supporter of abortion rights, but I could be a Christian-right person and still be in favor of free speech,” Mr. Hoag said. “If they think they can censor what’s on my phone, they’ve got another thing coming.”
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