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Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

[reddit-me]Earlier this week, I noticed a bit of traffic hitting an old post of mine about AT&T’s unlikely sponsorship of libertarian ideologues as they attempt to stop net neutrality. (Unlikely given their history of constantly pleading for government intervention in their favor.) I followed the source to the AT&T’s forum but could find no link leading back to my rather critical post about AT&T.

So, today, I decided to check on what had happened. I didn’t see any easy way to contact the people posting or the moderators, so I posted myself asking if anyone knew what had happened. Tifa_Shines “answered” my question by censoring my link as “spam.”

Her message to me justifying her censorship said:

Links to material that contains political discussion and/or promotion of third party websites are violating the guidelines and will be removed.

And further that it is “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to:

discuss[…] participant bans or other Moderator actions

I replied thanking her for “answering” my question — and that post was subsequently deleted. In my 5 minutes as a member of AT&T’s Community Forum, I discovered at least 2 rules:

Knowing that links AT&T, for whatever their reason, did not approve of were labeled “not relevant” and “spam,” I went back to the original page that was the source of traffic and found the offending, censored post — attempting to put AT&T’s bandwidth caps in the context of it’s efforts to fight net neutrality and their history of attacking every innovation from the Hush-A-Phone to the internet in their quest to create “the perfect system” without being distracted by that terrible thing called competition, and coincidentally, extracting the maximum profit from their customers.

In the scheme of things, the injustice of this censorship is rather small. AT&T is a private company and they can do whatever they want in a private forum that they run. Even the Westboro Baptist Church has rights.

But AT&T, by opposing net neutrality, is asking that we as a people trust them to not censor the internet.

They are asking for permission to change the structure of the internet by violating one of it’s foundational principles — net neutrality. (A principle that AT&T coincidentally opposed when government scientists were attempting to create the internet in the 1950s.)

They are asking that we trust them to not make websites that disagree with them slower and making those they approve of faster.

They are asking that we trust them as an ISP to provide access to content that criticizes them.

They are asking that we trust them not to quash the next disruptive technology that will use the internet in ways we haven’t yet thought of or that will be even better than the internet.

Their sordid history of pleading for special favors from the government to destroy any opponent or innovator (as detailed in many places, but most memorably and recently, in Tim Wu’s The Master Switch) — and their attempts to strangle the internet before it even existed — gives us little reason to trust them.

Their bankrolling of former libertarian economists and thinkers such as Adam D. Thierer (who before they sold out were vicious critics of AT&T) to lie about net neutrality gives us little reason to trust them.

AT&T’s attempts to game the political system with a “slush fund” sponsoring what former VP and Director of Communications, Dick Martin, called “so-called ‘grassroots’ organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside” give us little reason to trust them.

That various people AT&T has sponsored (including Grover Norquist) have now joined up with right wing religious fanatics to oppose net neutrality on the grounds that it will prevent the censorship of “obscenity and other objectionable content,” is yet another reason not to trust AT&T.

To summarize, AT&T is making the argument that they should be trusted as a steward of the internet and that the government should not allowed to protect one of the foundational principles of the internet that has made it a libertarian utopia of competition and free markets in the name of…libertarianism. Yet it’s history and current incarnation betray a culture of censorship and anti-competitive behavior that extends down to an Orwellian policing of it’s ‘Community’ Forum — labeling links it disagrees with as “Spam” and forbidding any discussion of it’s own censorship.

If it succeeds in overturning net neutrality, how much longer will it be before any website criticizing them is labeled as spam — just as a link to my blogpost criticizing them was? And how long before any attempt to discuss such labeling will be forbidden as against the user agreement you accept by getting your internet through AT&T?

Mad? Want to do something? Take a moment and email your Congressperson today to tell them how important net neutrality is to you.

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Posted in Criticism, Domestic issues, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy, The Opinionsphere, The Web and Technology | 57 Comments »

Right Wing Christians Against Net Neutrality Want To Censor Your Internet

Thursday, May 13th, 2010


Introduction & Summary

AT&T and other internet service providers started out wanting to undermine one of the foundational principles of the internet (and a direct cause of it’s great economic growth) so that AT&T and the rest could pad their profit margin. To do this, they funded think tanks to come up with talking points and propaganda, they created political “grassroots” opposition, and financed candidates who would oppose net neutrality (who happened to be Republican). In buying off opinion leaders to oppose net neutrality, they ended up needing to get into bed with right-wing christianists who want to censor the internet, thus trading away yet another basic aspect of what has made the internet successful.

How successful has this campaign been? A few weeks ago, I came across a few pieces linking to a letter sent by conservative “luminaries” Grover Norquist, Phyllis Schlafly, and a number of others. This letter prompted Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government and Neil Stevens of RedState to announce that the right wing was finally coming together nearly unanimously against net neutrality. As Big Government describes it:

[T]he Right, as a virtually unified whole, has turned a page in the debate over a dynamic Internet, and now is staunchly and almost uniformly opposed to what some critics call “a government takeover of the Internet.”

Non-Controversial and Bi-Partisan

It wasn’t long ago that net neutrality was a non-controversial position with bipartisan advocates and the only opposition coming from the entrenched interests of AT&T and other broadband providers. The reason for the consensus was obvious: The success story of the internet in creating a libertarian near-utopia was the product of government engineers and forceful regulators — and net neutrality was one of the core principles built into the internet that allowed its remarkable, decentralized success and its wide-open field of competition. It was net neutrality that allowed Yahoo! to come from nowhere and become a success; and Google; and Flickr; and Facebook; and virtually every other web success. Net neutrality meant that Google could compete head-to-head with Yahoo! — and that the only thing that mattered was the quality of its product instead of the degree it could pay off internet service providers to speed up its connection.

It was government action to mandate an early form network neutrality that allowed the internet itself to be created and it was government engineers who designed these initial networks to be content-neutral. Beginning in the late 1960s, regulatory agencies forced AT&T to become a more neutral network (to allow non-AT&T products to connect to its phone lines, to allow other firms to lease its phone lines). Until that point, AT&T had been blocking “the emergence of competing data-communications companies” that eventually played a role in the creation of the internet.

AT&T and the “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet”

However, given AT&T’s history, this bipartisan consensus seemed unlikely to last. The right wing’s movement turn against net neutrality can be counted as evidence of the corruption of our political process. And it’s not the first time. As I documented previously, AT&T has always sought favorable regulations to allow it to take advantage of its customers — and it has a history of funding astroturf organizations and buying off “influential people” in political movements in order to push its agenda. Former top AT&T executive Dick Martin confirmed that Grover Norquist was one of those individuals AT&T went to in the 1980s.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the opposition to net neutrality began to be generated — as John McCain and other Republicans reversed their positions as they received large inflows of money from various broadband companies opposing net neutrality. The meme began to circulate on the right wing that net neutrality was a version of the Fairness Doctrine of the 1960s which mandated radio programs give time to opposing views when they spoke on controversial subjects. This description of net neutrality made no sense — except — as I wrote at the time as a “propaganda campaign … directed [not] to the public at large, but at conservative activists.  The Fairness Doctrine is not something that gets the blood of the average American boiling.  But it does evoke a Pavlovian response among conservative activists and right-wing radio listeners.”  As I had written earlier:

By equating the Fairness Doctrine with net neutrality, [they are] attempting to polarize the public away from a consensus in favor of net neutrality into two competing camps.

The Right’s Mistake

This most recent letter from Norquist, Schlafly, and other conservatives is interesting though — more than just as a representation of the epistemic closure of the right as it deludes itself into thinking net neutrality is a “government takeover of the internet” and a “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet” because believing and supporting each of these things means more money for right-wing causes. What’s most interesting to me is the political mistake they made — quite possibly the price they paid to get so many christianist activists to sign off on it — and the only flaw I have noticed in this multi-year lobbying campaign. They came out in favor of censorship of the internet:

Net neutrality regulations also call into question how obscenity and other objectionable content on the Internet is treated. Let’s be clear, all content is not equal and does not deserve equal treatment, but net neutrality prohibits broadband service providers from prioritizing the content consumers want and preventing peddlers of child pornography from having unblocked access to every home Internet connection. It is critically important for parents and families to continue to have access to the tools necessary to keep unwanted content out of the home.

All rather uninteresting pablum that doesn’t sound objectionable to the average reader. However, it suggests a weakness in the anti-net neutrality coalition — as these more christianist members will undoubtedly begin to paint this as a matter of  protecting our children through censorship. “All content is not equal,” they say. “We need the internet to protect family values.”

Net neutrality isn’t just what makes the internet a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity; net neutrality is the opposite of censorship — it not only protects my right to blog and be heard on controversial issues, but that good old American past-time of porn-watching. It’s opponents want to block access to the parts of the internet that conflict with their family’s values.

As I had some trouble finding the full letter, I’m enclosing it below (with my source as RedState and the Institute on Religion and Public Policy [pdf]):


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Posted in Criticism, Domestic issues, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 58 Comments »

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