Verizon agrees to allow abortion-related txts

If there were ever a perfect example of why America needs wireless network neutrality, this is it. And FWIW, I'd feel the same way if the messages in question were anti-abortion.

Verizon Wireless last week rejected a request last week from the abortion rights group NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) to send txts over the Verizon network to subscribers who chose to receive them.

SMS "call to action" messages are a common tactic in the US and elsewhere for political and social advocacy groups, and Verizon's network is often used in this manner, as are all the other major US carriers. Txting isn't just for pro-choicers or lefties, either: conservative groups and the Republican National Committee do this too.

Anyway -- Verizon denied NARAL's request, saying it had the right to block “controversial or unsavory” text-messages. After much outcry over the last couple of days, Verizon has now reversed its decision. Snip from NYT story by Adam Liptak:

“The decision to not allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect, and we have fixed the process that led to this isolated incident,” Jeffrey Nelson, a company spokesman, said in a statement.

“It was an incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy,” Mr. Nelson said. “That policy, developed before text messaging protections such as spam filters adequately protected customers from unwanted messages, was designed to ward against communications such as anonymous hate messaging and adult materials sent to children.”

Verizon's Nelson goes on to say that the company is "neutral" on the issue of abortion, and it was the topic of abortion in general that raised the red flag.

Whatever. Verizon's decision, whether the result of an isolated goof or not, should be a cause for concern for anyone who values free speech -- online and otherwise.

More from the NYT piece:

“Even as dramatic as the adoption of text messaging for political communication has been in the United States, we’ve been quite slow compared to the rest of the world,” said James E. Katz, the director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University. “It’s important in political campaigns and political protests, and it has affected the outcomes of elections.”

Timothy Wu, a law professor at Columbia, said it was possible to find analogies to Verizon’s decision abroad. “Another entity that controls mass text messages is the Chinese government,” Professor Wu said.

Read the whole article, there's some fascinating history in here about Western Union blocking "unsavory" messages back in the telegraph days.

Link. Here's an AP account: Link.


  1. I just wanted to point out that NARAL is not an ADVOCATE for abortion. NARAL the political arm of the pro-choice movement which is made up of all types of organizations fighting governmental oppression for women to have control over their bodies. They advocate for the right and choice to have an abortion if necessary, and also for sex education which is the key to preventing abortion in the first place.

  2. Thanks Xeni! I think it’s awesome you guys are covering this. I am a Verizon customer and I was furious when I heard that they would censor ANY text messages, regardless of content. According to NARAL, in just two hours, over 20,000 messages were sent to Verizon by concerned citizens and customers. I am still sometimes amazed at the power that online activism can exert.

  3. @Firstamendment:

    At risk of reaching under the bridge and feeding a troll, I’d like to point out that I’ve been disemvoweled in one of my posts, and I’m pretty sure it’s an odd glitch, as what I said was pretty innocuous (being that I’m a benign and unintersting figure.) I’ve also seen many dissenting voices, including from recurring posters, in threads that have 30 or more posts and most certainly have attracted moderator attention.

  4. I should add that I realize my seeing some dissenting comments doesn’t mean that comment deletion hasn’t happened, but the aspersions so quickly cast on what I believe to be a glitch cause me to doubt your other statement that dissenting comments are being deliberately killed.

    Also I don’t think these homies play that.

  5. It seems to me that this is very dangerous ground for Verizon. As soon as they start choosing what words can travel over their network, they lose their status as a common carrier. That opens up some hugely wormy cans.

  6. Challenger, you’re right: dissenting opinions are not disemvowelled or unpublished for their dissent.

    I don’t know how obvious it’s been from out front, but of late Boing Boing has been plagued by a troll. He got handed a two-week suspension for misbehavior in another thread. Instead of taking the lesson and waiting it out, he announced that We Can’t Do That To Him, and launched a series of sockpuppets. When we spot ’em, they disappear. There’s no reward for circumventing a suspension.

    The troll’s had this repeatedly explained to him, but he just keeps posting comments, resulting in threads full of holes. I can’t predict how long this is going to continue. He’s a slow learner.

  7. Leonidas:

    I think that any post that begins with “Fuck that noise,” as Capt. Tim’s did, is waving a big ol’ “Moderate me please!” flag. That’s not a marker of reasoned discourse.

    I happen to agree with Teresa that it’s all but impossible to have a good conversation on the internet without some form of top-down moderation. I watched Usenet founder and sink under the weight of trolls in the late 90s; since then, I’ve seen social protocols sprout up all over the internet that promote the same kind of brash, confrontational, line-by-line nitpicky discourse that sank Usenet — social protocols that elevate one kind of “survival of the fittest” discourse at the expense of all others, and at the expense of the commerce of ideas. In large part, I’ve given up conducting discussions in comment threads, because, without moderation, they veer off into personal attacks and rhetorical tricks, into a zone where conversation is a contest, and that’s worth neither my time nor my emotional investment. But it doesn’t really matter what I think about moderation — the fact is, the BoingBoingers feel it’s important, and this is their space.

    You say, I particularly like the bit where she says she doesn’t edit content, she only removes the vowels. Delicious! Teresa draws a distinction between changing or removing semantic content and altering the appearance of a post. I think that distinction was probably clear to you, and your deliberate disingenuousness is one signifier of the sort of discourse you feel more at home with.

    In the thread you link to, Teresa admits that the moderation system is still on its shakedown cruise; naturally, there will be problems. She seemed surprised that people found it hard to read disemvowelled posts, for instance. But I know she’s a well-intentioned and wise person who’s doing her best when faced with a herculean task that I wouldn’t touch with your fingers; you should ask yourself: Is snarkily comparing her methods to Chinese oppressors going to help or hurt, in the long run?

  8. The best solution would be to NOT spam your valuable customers with SMS messages, period.

    If I wasn’t locked into another year of Verizon service, I might consider quitting when I get the first ad, pro-choice or pro-life.

    When is someone going to challenge the use of binding wireless contracts and the fees required to cancel them?

  9. @owl, these aren’t spam — they’re opt-in messages for people who support NARAL and want alerts via txt. Same with the other messages described in this post.

  10. This totally supports why it is good for companies to support Net Neutrality. If they don’t have to make any decisions on censorship, morality, etc, they will not become targets for scandals.

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