Sometimes it’s tough to model freedom of speech to the world. The U.S. government rightly blasts Myanmar’s military junta for, among other actions against protesters, cutting Internet access.
At the same time, U.S. businesses are ripping pages right out of the Bush administration’s top-secret playbook. They are censoring or refusing certain e-mail communications, even though the would-be recipients of the messages have asked for them.
Verizon initially declined to grant (paid) access to its huge mobile phone network to NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights advocacy organization, for a text-message program. After intense nationwide media scrutiny, the phone company flip-flopped, saying it made an error and will now carry the organization’s text messages.
How magnanimous of Verizon – agreeing to accept another revenue stream. Shareholders should be pleased.
Verizon’s presumption, however, is by no means the only instance of private censorship. Opt-in subscribers to the newsletter of liberal news aggregator Truthout (www.truthout.org) have been having troubles lately with e-mail providers AOL, Microsoft Corp. (Hotmail, MSN and WebTV) and Yahoo.
(Full disclosure: I am a Truthout supporter, sending in a small monthly donation to the site that depends entirely on voluntary financing. I visit Truthout every day, which is how I know about this issue.)
As of his latest posting on September 20, Truthout Executive Director Marc Ash writes that AOL appears to have reversed course and is now forwarding Truthout newsletters. Yahoo also is forwarding Truthout e-mails – to its customers’ junk mail folders, doing so even after customers attempted to mark Truthout e-mails as acceptable in their Yahoo mail control pages.
I tried phoning executives at these companies for comment, only to be informed that unless I could tell the receptionist the names of the executives’ assistants, my call would not be forwarded to their offices.
I then tried contacting two PR representatives for Yahoo, along with the Microsoft rapid response PR team. Only the Microsoft spokesman provided any response, via e-mail (how ironic). “. . . We have followed up directly with Truthout to try to help address any issues and provided specific guidance on our Hotmail practices. Microsoft treats all mail providers in the same manner by providing the information necessary to ensure delivery of legitimate mail to its customers.”
Ash reports, however, that Hotmail, MSN and WebTV still decline to forward any Truthout communications. Are Hotmail, MSN and WebTV equally as vigilant in denying passage to pornographic images or foul language in e-mails?
What gives any e-mail service provider the right to block any legitimate e-mail? This does not include child pornography, which is illegal. What about the gazillion pieces of spam (unsolicited and usually unwanted e-mails) transmitted by AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail, MSN and WebTV? If these services do so well at blocking Truthout’s e-mails, surely they can exert themselves to quash all that annoying spam as well.
Without direct comment from any of these companies, I can only surmise that Truthout’s liberal political persuasion may have something to do with transmission problems for its e-mails.
While the First Amendment prohibits the kind of government censorship that Myanmar is exhibiting, it does not cover private U.S. businesses. As e-mail and the World Wide Web take on a greater and greater role as primary communications methods, perhaps it’s time for a law, or even a constitutional amendment, to make sure that private businesses do not get to play parent and decide what we, adult customers, can and cannot receive in our inboxes.
Just to be sure they get the message, customers of AOL, Hotmail, MSN, WebTV, and Yahoo might want to replace their providers with different companies to hit these businesses where they live – in the pocketbook.
After all, if businesses can get away with censoring liberals, what’s to stop them from censoring conservative or religious messages they don’t like? This isn’t a partisan issue. This is an issue of freedom itself. The likes and dislikes of private enterprise cannot trump customers’ freedom of speech and expression, and their right to freely exchange even controversial opinions and comments.
© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.