Right to Free Speech: What does it mean?

The con­tro­ver­sy start­ed last week, when Ver­i­zon (one of the two largest tele­com car­ri­ers in the US), refused to make their net­work avail­able for a text mes­sage pro­gram advo­cat­ing abor­tion. The pro­gram allows peo­ple to sign up for mes­sages if they choose, and is a com­plete­ly vol­un­tary exer­cise of choice for con­sumers. Ver­i­zon would have earned (some) mon­ey from the busi­ness, but instead refused it.

The move led to a storm of protests. As NYT observed:

Legal experts said pri­vate com­pa­nies like Ver­i­zon prob­a­bly have the legal right to decide which mes­sages to car­ry. The laws that for­bid com­mon car­ri­ers from inter­fer­ing with voice trans­mis­sions on ordi­nary phone lines do not apply to text mes­sages.

The dis­pute is 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.

CNET opined:

The idea that a tele­com car­ri­er will refuse to car­ry mes­sages based on con­tent is incred­i­bly scary. Could they decide to broad­cast mes­sages sent by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, but not Repub­li­cans? Chris­t­ian mes­sages but not Jew­ish? Every­body has a point of view that could be viewed as “con­tro­ver­sial or unsa­vory” to some­one else. Appar­ent­ly the First Amend­ment does not in itself pro­hib­it such cen­sor­ship, but we should not accept such an action, which has been likened to the mass cen­sor­ship of polit­i­cal speech by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, no mat­ter whether the car­ri­er agrees with the con­tent or not. Laws that for­bid com­mon car­ri­ers from inter­fer­ing with voice trans­mis­sion on phone lines do not apply to text mes­sages. It’s time to change that law to pro­tect free speech, no mat­ter how it is com­mu­ni­cat­ed.

In a swift turn-around, Ver­i­zon reversed its deci­sion and decid­ed to car­ry the mes­sage. The Ver­i­zon pub­lic pol­i­cy blog attrib­uted the rever­sal to a dusty, inter­nal pol­i­cy, but remained ambiva­lent about whether any such pol­i­cy will con­tin­ue to exist in the future.

In the US, news­pa­pers have the right to accept or reject any adver­tise­ment for decades. News­pa­pers are a pub­lish­ing medi­um, clear­ly pro­tect­ed by the First Amend­ment, as they are liable for what they pub­lish. Radio sta­tions have a right to reject and cen­sor what spots and ads they run (an anti­war cam­paign was turned down dur­ing Viet­nam and the court upheld the station’s right to refuse). What about search engines like Google and Yahoo? In Feb­ru­ary this year, a fed­er­al judge set­tled that ques­tion when it gave the same right to search engines as that of news­pa­pers: thus, Google can refuse to accept any ad, with­out any expla­na­tions required.

Free speech and net neu­tral­i­ty advo­cates like Tim­o­thy Karr on Huff­in­g­ton Post are lob­by­ing to con­vene hear­ings on tele­com cen­sor­ship poli­cies. If the tele­com com­pa­nies were pure­ly pri­vate enter­pris­es, a rul­ing either way might have been sim­pler. Being a gov­ern­ment reg­u­lat­ed indus­try adds fur­ther com­pli­ca­tions, as Richard Koman argues.

One of the ear­li­est advo­cates (I could find) who saw all this com­ing back in 1995, was Nicholas John­son in the Wired Mag­a­zine:

We find our­selves a lit­tle late in the free speech day, hav­ing already lost our rights to speak through dom­i­nant news­pa­pers, broad­cast sta­tions and cable.  But insist­ing on the total sep­a­ra­tion of con­tent and con­duit as the Inter­net is pri­va­tized may still be our best hope.  It’s the only free speech forum left for those of us with­out $200 mil­lion in spare pock­et change to buy our own news­pa­per or TV sta­tion.

The court has already ruled that Google is not your pub­lic square. Are Ver­i­zon and AT&T pub­lic squares?

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  • Mahen­dra:

    This is the clos­est sim­i­le for how I frame the debate:

    Tele­com com­pa­nies as repeaters (~ dumb providers of fat pipes)? Or Tele­com com­pa­nies as routers (~ intel­li­gent arbiters of the traf­fic pass­ing through the pipes includ­ing edit­ing priv­i­leges)?

    I think they are the for­mer; by tak­ing on issues like cen­sor­ship, they are try­ing hard to do what is inher­ent­ly not suit­ed to their rai­son d’etre as busi­ness­es.

    Their share­hold­ers should have a view on this. Con­sumers of knowl­edge, if so inclined, can find the bi-par­ti­san ‘truth’ in many oth­er places. Those inclined to par­ti­san view, well, they do not get into these debates, do they?

  • Well detailed out. Of course Ver­i­zon has the right to block any­thing they con­sid­er to be unsavoury. This is not a free speech issue, because the cus­tomer can dump Ver­i­zon and choose anoth­er car­ri­er. In this case, it is rather unwise of Ver­i­zon to actu­al­ly exer­cise that right in this case.

  • She­faly: repeaters vs. routers…nice way to frame it.

    I agree with you, that they’re try­ing to do some­thing not inher­ent­ly suit­ed to their busi­ness, and that con­sumers have oth­er choic­es.

    But that leaves the ques­tion unan­swered: should these com­pa­nies eth­i­cal­ly be oblig­at­ed to, and legal­ly be forced to, car­ry all con­tent?

    Ashok: I would have whole­heart­ed­ly agreed with you if it were not for numer­ous gov­ern­ment, state, and reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies that are stake­hold­ers in these busi­ness­es.

    I am inclined to agree with you, that the car­ri­ers are not pub­lic squares, and that this is not a free speech issue. But if you see the tremen­dous move­ment sur­round­ing ‘net neu­tral­i­ty’, and reput­ed folks fight­ing this as a free speech issue, you’d be amazed.

    And of course, it was unwise of Ver­i­zon, but that’s besides the point…

  • Mahen­dra:

    Nei­ther routers nor repeaters have eth­i­cal fil­ters. 🙂

    If it is tru­ly a free mar­ket, peo­ple will find oth­er providers. In the US, media is marked by sharp par­ti­san­ship. There is some non-par­ti­san or at least bipar­ti­san con­tent on the PBS and C-Span but that is about all. Most peo­ple, who care to get oth­er views, turn to for­eign media includ­ing BBC World Ser­vice. Even so they need a car­ri­er who will not pre­vent them from get­ting access to such ser­vice.

    Cen­sor­ing con­tent is effec­tive­ly also play­ing with the rights of the con­sumers, cit­i­zens of a free coun­try. Is it not?

    As for unsavoury con­tent in the USA, I think that is a whole new blog post 🙂

  • She­faly: It is not a media issue.

    Regard­ing cen­sor­ing con­tent: why should a car­ri­er be forced to car­ry an advertiser’s con­tent in the first place? This is dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent from gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship — where the rights of a free country’s cit­i­zens come into the pic­ture.

    By choos­ing not to car­ry this spe­cif­ic text cam­paign, Ver­i­zon is pro­tect­ing its right to free speech. Con­sumer right is not to be exer­cised at the expense of pri­vate com­pa­nies — they’re not pub­lic squares — so you can’t say they’re play­ing with any rights here. They’re mere­ly refus­ing to engage in a busi­ness trans­ac­tion and are well with­in their rights to do that.

    This is what is the oth­er view­point, as point­ed out by Ashok above.

  • Notwith­stand­ing the tele­com reg­u­la­to­ry regime in place, there’s no social con­tract or law that oblig­ates Ver­i­zon to car­ry or not, any legal con­tent. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe the Tele­com Act of 1996, and its revi­sions, pro­vide for any reg­u­la­tion of the con­tent, bar­ring a few excep­tions like nation­al secu­ri­ty mat­ters, child pornog­ra­phy, and the like (ille­gal con­tent).

    Should the gov­ern­ment have a say in the legal con­tent that the tele­com com­pa­nies choose to car­ry or not? I am opposed to the net-neu­tral­i­ty bill. It’s a dan­ger­ous­ly slip­pery slope lead­ing down to Bei­jing or Tehran.

    Ver­i­zon should have the free­dom to allo­cate its band­width, repeaters, routers, and all in what it deems to be its busi­ness inter­est. The folk wis­dom here is that the mon­key can­not be trust­ed to divide the bread fair­ly between the cats 🙂

  • I dont think as a ser­vice provider, it has any right to decide which mes­sage it wants to car­ry unless its ille­gal. Its out there in the mar­ket to pro­vide sevr­vice to all with­out any dis­crim­i­na­tion. I would rather call it a mat­ter of dis­crim­i­na­tion against pro-abor­tion camp than free­dom of speech. If Ver­i­zon is against abor­tion, it could have giv­en a ‘longer’ dis­claimer in the text mes­sage giv­ing its own views.

  • The dis­tinc­tion between a ser­vice provider and a prod­uct provider is at best fic­ti­tious. A lawyer is a ser­vice provider, too. Does she have the right to refuse to rep­re­sent the likes of Paul Jen­nings Hill? You bet she does.

    Ver­i­zon is a pri­vate busi­ness just as Proctor&Gamble is, and its only oblig­a­tion is to serve the best inter­est of its share­hold­ers, which is usu­al­ly max­i­miz­ing their wealth — legal­ly.

  • RTF: You are not wrong. Cur­rent­ly, there is no such law that oblig­ates Ver­i­zon.

    I’m not very knowl­edge­able about the net neu­tral­i­ty bill(s), and hope to learn more in the future. What intrigues me is that this and net neu­tral­i­ty bill is being grouped and tak­en up by advo­cates as a ‘fight for free­dom of speech’.

    And nice coun­ter­point to Oemar’s com­ment. It is always inter­est­ing when one con­sid­ers the same ques­tion after replac­ing a cor­po­ra­tion with an indi­vid­ual run­ning a busi­ness.

  • Oemar: thanks for shar­ing your view. I have a ques­tion:
    //Its out there in the mar­ket to pro­vide sevr­vice to all with­out any discrimination.//
    Would you say Google is out there in the mar­ket to pro­vide ad ser­vice to all with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion?

    Should Google not have any right to refuse cer­tain legal ads?

  • I total­ly agree with The Ratio­nal Fool and Ashok. The com­pa­ny was well with­in its rights. If any­one hates it for it, change over to anoth­er provider.

  • Mahen­dra:

    This is dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent from gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship — where the rights of a free country’s cit­i­zens come into the pic­ture.”

    From a legal and a leg­isla­tive point of view:

    1. Prac­ti­tion­er per­spec­tive: Pol­i­cy mak­ing in the US is heav­i­ly influ­enced in every sphere by lob­by­ing by the con­cerned indus­try sec­tor. Iron­i­cal­ly the term ‘lob­by­ing’ comes from the lob­by in the mid­dle of West­min­ster Palace but Amer­i­cans have evolved it into a ruth­less art form.

    So the dif­fer­ence between pri­vate sec­tor com­pa­ny enforced or gov­ern­ment enforced cen­sor­ship is fal­la­cious, espe­cial­ly in the con­text of the US.

    Luck­i­ly for US cit­i­zens, the con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment grant­i­ng free speech rights were not being re-con­sid­ered by the cur­rent Con­gress!

    2. Legal per­spec­tive: Indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens have fun­da­men­tal rights, secured under the Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tion. A lim­it­ed lia­bil­i­ty com­pa­ny is legal­ly speak­ing not an ‘indi­vid­ual cit­i­zen’ and there­fore does not enjoy the same rights as an indi­vid­ual cit­i­zen does.

    An LLC is set up with the explic­it aim of remov­ing fidu­cia­ry risk from indi­vid­ual direc­tors to a legal enti­ty. Which means in the case of a bank­rupt­cy, its cred­i­tors only have a charge on the assets of the com­pa­ny and not the assets of the indi­vid­ual direc­tors.

    In return for this risk dis­place­ment, com­pa­nies lose some “priv­i­leges” that indi­vid­u­als may oth­er­wise enjoy. This is one such instance.

    And hence its cen­sor­ship can be eas­i­ly chal­lenged in the US courts of law. What is worse that since Ver­i­zon is seen to impede an indi­vid­ual citizen’s rights under the First Amend­ment, those cit­i­zens have a right to take Ver­i­zon to court for a vio­la­tion of their rights.

    3. As far as con­sumer choice is con­cerned, if more cus­tomers of Ver­i­zon read their EULA doc­u­ments, every­one will leave! Ver­i­zon is rely­ing on caveat emp­tor and result­ing infor­ma­tion asym­me­tries to defend its point.

    Ver­i­zon should con­sid­er in its best inter­est what Pandora’s box it is open­ing with this step.

    So net-net, if Ver­i­zon amends its arti­cles of incor­po­ra­tion to say it will not car­ry such and such traf­fic, then based on that dis­clo­sure, cus­tomers and share­hold­ers could make an informed choice.

    BTW in most court cas­es, re EULA pro­vi­sos, indi­vid­ual con­sumers usu­al­ly get away more advan­ta­geous­ly than the provider who relies on the fine print too much…

    Thanks.

  • Mahen­dra:

    Should Google not have any right to refuse cer­tain legal ads?”

    I would sug­gest you run a search for the word ‘Jew’ on Google and see the pink bar on top! 🙂

  • She­faly,

    1. //the dif­fer­ence between pri­vate sec­tor com­pa­ny enforced or gov­ern­ment enforced cen­sor­ship is fal­la­cious, espe­cial­ly in the con­text of the US//
    If you think the heavy polit­i­cal lob­by­ing in the US blurs the dis­tinc­tion between pri­vate sec­tor and gov­ern­ment, I dis­agree. Regard­ing pri­vate sec­tor, a con­sumer can still have a choice; with the gov­ern­ment, there can be no choice, peri­od. Leg­is­la­tion being debat­ed by Con­gress is vast­ly dif­fer­ent from pol­i­cy deci­sions being debat­ed at a Company’s board meet­ing.

    2. //And hence its cen­sor­ship can be eas­i­ly chal­lenged in the US courts of law. What is worse that since Ver­i­zon is seen to impede an indi­vid­ual citizen’s rights under the First Amend­ment, those cit­i­zens have a right to take Ver­i­zon to court for a vio­la­tion of their rights.//
    I fail to under­stand which indi­vid­ual rights has Ver­i­zon imped­ed in this sit­u­a­tion? Are you answer­ing my ques­tion at the end of my post: is Ver­i­zon the pub­lic square (which is the only con­text with­in which you can talk about right to free speech)?

    Also, none of the advo­cates, includ­ing the most vocif­er­ous ones, sug­gest­ed that Ver­i­zon should be sued. In fact, most legal experts agree that Ver­i­zon is cer­tain­ly not liable in this case (even if it had con­tin­ued with its refusal).

    3. I agree. But AT&T’s EULA appar­ent­ly is even worse! And these two cov­er most of the mar­ket…

    4. Regard­ing the Google dis­claimer: I do not under­stand how it is rel­e­vant. The dis­claimer is regard­ing how Google doesn’t want to manip­u­late its page rank­ing algo­rithm for indi­vid­ual, spe­cif­ic cas­es. This is relat­ed to search results, not ads. In fact, Google has the full right to and does refuse to car­ry ads, and doesn’t owe any expla­na­tion for the refusal either.

  • If oblig­a­tion to share­hold­ers + more prof­its is the guid­ing prin­ci­ple, how does refus­ing busi­ness that would’ve brought in more mon­ey work towards that? How about the neg­a­tive pub­lic­i­ty as a fall-out and mon­ey spent to counter it?

    Was Ayn Rand pro-life?

    I’d think that the rea­son for refus­ing a ser­vice is some­thing that should be con­sid­ered too — along with oth­er aspects that have already been dis­cussed above, and I don’t think a sin­gle rule can apply to all sit­u­a­tions — there are always nuances and impacts that need to be con­sid­ered. I think the sit­u­a­tion would be dif­fer­ent in the case of a lawyer refus­ing a client based on his (law­ful) per­son­al beliefs if he is work­ing for him­self vs. employed by a law-firm.

    Anoth­er exam­ple to con­sid­er: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/25/AR2006102501727.html

  • I dis­like the thought of being ‘denied’ any type of infor­ma­tion on a ‘pol­i­cy’.

    But, we ARE free to find our infor­ma­tion else­where.….

    very good post, good detail-thnx

  • Amit: thanks for your com­ments!

    No, refus­ing busi­ness, neg­a­tive pub­lic­i­ty, etc. doesn’t at all work in Verizon’s favor, and that’s prob­a­bly why they reversed the deci­sion. We don’t know the rea­sons why Ver­i­zon act­ed the way they did — the issue we’re debat­ing is whether it has the right to or not.

    I don’t under­stand how Rand comes into the pic­ture here or is rel­e­vant, but to answer your ques­tion, yes.

    The ques­tion of the rea­son for refus­ing a ser­vice is obvi­ous­ly the most inter­est­ing one for the enti­ty who’s request is refused. The law how­ev­er has giv­en an absolute clean chit not just to tele­com providers, but even search engines as well — no need to explain or reveal the rea­son…

    The exam­ple you’ve linked to is indeed very inter­est­ing! Almost a top­ic for anoth­er post in itself! Thanks…:-)

  • BG: Yes, absolute­ly. If any busi­ness or com­pa­ny wants to sur­vive, they bet­ter explain their poli­cies. Notice how many com­pa­nies today have ‘pub­lic pol­i­cy blogs’? 🙂

    Thanks for the com­pli­ments. You’re most wel­come, and glad to have you vis­it­ing again!

  • Mahen­dra:

    If you think the heavy polit­i­cal lob­by­ing in the US blurs the dis­tinc­tion between pri­vate sec­tor and gov­ern­ment, I dis­agree.”

    I brought that up because in effect many of the laws reg­u­lat­ing busi­ness in the US exist as a result of heavy lob­by­ing by the indus­try con­cerned. As such some research shows they are very loaded in favour of busi­ness­es. So it is only the path­way the cen­sor­ship takes, not the actu­al effect that dif­fers.

    The Bush Gov­ern­ment is pro-life and has been known to cut fund­ing for abor­tion ser­vices to direct them into pro-absti­nence ser­vices.

    To an out­sider, Ver­i­zon appears as if it is pan­der­ing to the Admin­is­tra­tion for gains which we may not know of in pub­lic domain yet.

    I fail to under­stand which indi­vid­ual rights has Ver­i­zon imped­ed in this sit­u­a­tion? Also, none of the advo­cates, includ­ing the most vocif­er­ous ones, sug­gest­ed that Ver­i­zon should be sued.”

    Abor­tion is a very loaded dis­cus­sion in the US. It is a very sen­si­tive top­ic as demands were recent­ly made to reverse Roe vs Wade. Pro-abor­tion groups and indi­vid­u­als have a right to exer­cise their right to demand and receive and prop­a­gate their views. Verizon’s action to block pro-abor­tion mes­sages is there­fore not just a test case for free speech but also a touchy top­ic in US pol­i­tics of the day.

    Against this back­drop suing Ver­i­zon could get messier than if the said blocked texts were about, say, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism or some­thing less polar­is­ing than abor­tion.

    And in the US sys­tem, one Fed­er­al rul­ing can­not always be cit­ed in oth­er cas­es.

    If the tele­com com­pa­nies were pure­ly pri­vate enter­pris­es, a rul­ing either way might have been sim­pler. Being a gov­ern­ment reg­u­lat­ed indus­try adds fur­ther com­pli­ca­tions..”

    This is a def­i­n­i­tion­al fal­la­cy. There is no such thing as a pure­ly pri­vate enter­prise. All enter­pris­es func­tion with­in the reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work gov­ern­ing their indus­try. Tel­cos are no excep­tion. Pri­vate own­er­ship does not mean free for all.

    Since every indus­try has its own reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work, I would be keen to hear exam­ples of pure­ly pri­vate enter­pris­es…

    But AT&T’s EULA appar­ent­ly is even worse.”

    I am afraid that is a bit of cir­cu­lar log­ic. They may cov­er the mar­ket between them but that is more a sign of con­sumer iner­tia than the ‘right­ness’ of the EULA con­tents.

    On the Google exam­ple: it was a bit of a short cut.

    Google’s pol­i­cy pro­hibits ads that advo­cate against an indi­vid­ual or group. So if you set up an anti-semit­ic ser­vice, then you could not use Google’s ads ser­vice but you can still show up in the search results.

    I used it hur­ried­ly, I admit, to show that the space is quite murky. Con­tent — whether ads or texts or search results — is con­tent. If com­pa­nies start apply­ing dif­fer­ent eth­i­cal stan­dards to all man­ner of con­tent, it will get very com­plex, unen­force­able and unman­age­able very soon. And any asym­me­tries open to law suits and oth­er legal chal­lenges.

    Thanks.

  • I don’t under­stand how Rand comes into the pic­ture here or is rel­e­vant, but to answer your ques­tion, yes.

    Well, I was spec­u­lat­ing if there was some ide­o­log­i­cal basis to the deci­sion to deny ser­vice, giv­en that it was a pro-choice/abor­tion group. Pro-lif­ers are usu­al­ly against abor­tion.

    The exam­ple you’ve linked to is indeed very inter­est­ing! Almost a top­ic for anoth­er post in itself!
    Yeah, it’s an inter­est­ing exam­ple from many dif­fer­ent points-of-view, though it is almost a year old now and Daniel Pipes cov­ered it exten­sive­ly.

  • Amit:
    We can debate the ratio­nale for Verizon’s deci­sion to refuse ser­vice and its sub­se­quent retrac­tion, ad infini­tum, but it’s point­less. If the share­hold­ers believed that either of these deci­sions was not in their best inter­est, they have recours­es in the law to dis­ci­pline the board. Verizon’s cus­tomers, how­ev­er, have no right to chal­lenge its busi­ness deci­sions, except with their pock­et­book.

    I don’t see the rel­e­vance of Ayn Rand to the cur­rent debate, but fyi, she was for a woman’s absolute and inalien­able rights to her body/life. So am I.

    As for the lawyer work­ing for a law-firm, the ques­tion turns on the firm’s right to refusal of ser­vice, and the con­tract between the firm and its employ­ee. And, the answer doesn’t change sig­nif­i­cant­ly from what I had writ­ten in my ear­li­er com­ment.

    She­faly:
    I must point out that the LLC is not the same as the Statu­to­ry Cor­po­ra­tion in the US, but the dif­fer­ences have lit­tle or no rel­e­vance to the top­ic on hand, so I’ll skip them (btw, Ver­i­zon is a cor­po­ra­tion, not an llc).

    I also believe that you are con­fus­ing lim­it­ed lia­bil­i­ty and fidu­cia­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty to the share­hold­ers. In return for the lim­it­ed lia­bil­i­ty, a cor­po­ra­tion, an llc, or an llp, is bur­dened by cer­tain cor­po­rate gov­er­nance and tax relat­ed oblig­a­tions, but as far as I know, cur­tail­ment of its right of refusal of ser­vice is not one of them.

  • She­faly wrote:

    … Pro-abor­tion groups and indi­vid­u­als have a right to exer­cise their right to demand and receive and prop­a­gate their views…

    … but they have no right to access Verizon’s prop­er­ty for that pur­pose!

  • Mahen­dra:
    Ayn Rand was very much pro-choice in the abor­tion debate, as I have point­ed out in my ear­li­er com­ment. She was, of course, pro-life, too, but in quite a dif­fer­ent way 🙂

  • I don’t see the rel­e­vance of Ayn Rand to the cur­rent debate, but fyi, she was for a woman’s absolute and inalien­able rights to her body/life. So am I.

    So she was pro-choice, not pro-life. That’s what I’d have thought too. 🙂

  • Verizon’s cus­tomers, how­ev­er, have no right to chal­lenge its busi­ness deci­sions, except with their pock­et­book.

    I’m not so sure about that. What you’re say­ing is that the rights of an indi­vid­ual are always trumped by the rights of a cor­po­ra­tion — a non-human enti­ty. If so, then I’ll have to dis­agree with that.

  • Amit wrote:

    What you’re say­ing is that the rights of an indi­vid­ual are always trumped by the rights of a cor­po­ra­tion — a non-human enti­ty.

    No, I am not say­ing that, but you are 🙂 A cor­po­ra­tion, imv, is a nexus of con­tracts, and a legal fic­tion. The Bill of Rights does not apply to these fic­ti­tious enti­ties. As investors, Verizon’s share­hold­ers have absolute prop­er­ty rights over its assets. They del­e­gate most of these rights to the Board 0f Direc­tors and the man­age­ment, who act as their fidu­cia­ry agents. Verizon’s cutomers do not enter this pic­ture — not legal­ly.

  • TRF, thanks for the clar­i­fi­ca­tion. 🙂

  • Amit, She­faly, & RTF: I am very grate­ful for the inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion here.

    Shefaly’s insight and Amit’s ques­tions have answered a basic ques­tion in my mind regard­ing why advo­cates were terming this a a free-speech issue so vocif­er­ous­ly. It is appar­ent that this is an out­come of the bipar­ti­san (I like to call it bipo­lar) pol­i­tics of the US, where the lib­er­tar­i­an Left who (cor­rect­ly) believe in the right to free speech tend to (wrong­ly) accuse Com­pa­nies of tram­pling over indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty. And the con­ser­v­a­tive Right who (cor­rect­ly) believe in cap­i­tal­is­tic prin­ci­ples (for the most part), tend to (wrong­ly) tram­ple over the right to free speech under var­i­ous con­ser­v­a­tive guis­es! (Aar­rrgh — I hate to use too many paren­the­ses for dis­claimers!)

    PS: Regard­ing my com­ment about Rand being pro-life, I’m actu­al­ly very hap­py. I’ve nev­er sub­scribed to that ter­mi­nol­o­gy. More impor­tant­ly, epis­te­mo­log­i­cal­ly, I’m unwill­ing to cede the term ‘pro-life’ to the anti-abor­tion­ists, as Peikoff once bril­liant­ly clar­i­fied.

  • Mahen­dra: Thanks. Mar­ty Kaplan, about one of whose turns of phrase I have writ­ten today had this won­der­ful def­i­n­i­tion for inde­cen­cy (anoth­er bug­bear in the US):

    Inde­cen­cy is the right wing attempt­ing to rede­fine dis­sent as unpa­tri­ot­ic. It’s cor­po­rate chief­tains being shocked that their prof­it cen­ters depend on sleaze, vio­lence and humil­i­a­tion. It’s audi­ences com­plain­ing about the con­tent they keep lap­ping up. It’s reg­u­la­tors exempt­ing media from their pub­lic inter­est oblig­a­tions. It’s pornog­ra­phers hid­ing behind the First Amend­ment. It’s grand­stand­ing politi­cians going after artists and intel­lec­tu­als. It’s 11-year-olds’ favorite way to taunt their par­ents. It’s noth­ing that any of us hasn’t heard before.”

  • She­faly: Thanks for intro­duc­ing me to Mar­ty. It took me a while to learn his back­ground to be able to appre­ci­ate the quote above. Yes, it is quite a com­ment on the inde­cen­cy busi­ness!

    His Nor­man Lear Cen­ter seems intrigu­ing in its mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary purview. Maybe I’ll find some time to check out his Huff­in­g­ton Posts…

  • Mahen­dra, liv­ing in the US for so long, I am well aware of the debate over the terms used by both sides — pro-life/an­ti-abor­tion, and pro-choice/pro-abor­tion. 🙂
    Actu­al­ly, irre­spec­tive of who is right, both sides play these games over san­i­tiz­ing the words used and phras­ing their debate in a pos­i­tive light. As for me, I’m not real­ly attached to using any one par­tic­u­lar phrase — it’s the actions and the rights that count. If you haven’t already seen it, there’s an excel­lent movie called Cit­i­zen Ruth that takes a satir­i­cal look at this debate in the US.

    TRF:
    We can debate the ratio­nale for Verizon’s deci­sion to refuse ser­vice and its sub­se­quent retrac­tion, ad infini­tum, but it’s point­less.

    Actu­al­ly, when it comes to women’s rights issue in the US relat­ed to abor­tion, it is not point­less, because it is usu­al­ly the crux of the mat­ter. 🙂

    -*-

    I do think that legal­ly, the com­pa­ny was with­in its rights to refuse, but it does raise con­cerns over con­trol and cen­sor­ing of infor­ma­tion. Free­dom of speech is point­less with­out any medi­um for peo­ple to speak up or trans­mit their voice. So, the con­cerns raised are valid, from my point-of-view. Thank­ful­ly, cur­rent­ly there are oth­er avenues avail­able.

  • Amit: I agree that both sides twist and sani­tise the debate. But only pro-abor­tion­ists risk being clubbed by the anti-abor­tion­ists.

    It was all the­o­ret­i­cal for me till I once saw a bunch of anti-abor­tion­ists down­town in Wash­ing­ton DC, out­side a Planned Par­ent­hood Cen­ter. Big guys, sev­er­al of them, some pre­vent­ing young women from enter­ing the PP build­ing! Talk about free­dom.

  • Or the met­al detec­tor (sim­i­lar to the ones at air­ports) that I saw at the Boston PP. It is scary peo­ple resort to vio­lence to make their point.

  • Amit: //As for me, I’m not real­ly attached to using any one par­tic­u­lar phrase — it’s the actions and the rights that count.//

    Believe me, I spent many years of my life believ­ing exact­ly like you’ve stat­ed. I didn’t think that words or phras­es or labels or ter­mi­nol­o­gy count­ed at all. All that count­ed was actions.

    That was until I learnt about, real­ized, and under­stood, the pow­er of words, how they’re relat­ed to con­cepts, how they’re relat­ed to phras­es, how that is relat­ed to the way we think, and how it ulti­mate­ly affects our actions. (That’s what epis­te­mol­o­gy taught me).

    There are a lot of folks com­ment­ing in the blo­gos­phere about “address­ing the root of the prob­lem”, what­ev­er the prob­lem may be. There are very few who under­stand that the root lies in the way we think, which is depen­dent on our con­cepts, which are in turn depen­dent on how we define them in the first place.

    I have had a hard trav­el to under­stand how our def­i­n­i­tions of words and con­cepts actu­al­ly deter­mine our actions.

    This is too big a top­ic for me to address in a com­ment so I’ll leave it here.

    //irrespective of who is right, both sides play these games over san­i­tiz­ing the words used and phras­ing their debate in a pos­i­tive light.//

    I do not think that those who believe in a woman’s right to abor­tion are engag­ing in games (as regard words used and phras­ing debates is involved). If you term that as ‘san­i­tiz­ing the words used’, please give me exam­ples with def­i­n­i­tions. Please give me one exam­ple where the con­cept ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’ has been ‘san­i­tized’. Please also enlight­en me by what you mean by ‘games’ and ‘san­i­tize’.

    //I do think that legal­ly, the com­pa­ny was with­in its rights to refuse, but it does raise con­cerns over con­trol and cen­sor­ing of information.//
    I com­plete­ly agree with you. That was the whole point of my post!

  • That was until I learnt about, real­ized, and under­stood, the pow­er of words, how they’re relat­ed to con­cepts …

    Yes, I am aware of this. 🙂

    The very fact that the terms used are “pro-choice” and “pro-life” instead of “pro-abor­tion” and “anti-abor­tion” is a good indi­ca­tor of how both sides choose to present their posi­tions to the larg­er pub­lic. That’s what I meant. Nei­ther par­ty uses the term “abor­tion,” prob­a­bly because of the moral impli­ca­tions asso­ci­at­ed with the word.

    I wouldn’t be sur­prised if both par­ties spent a lot of mon­ey in doing some research on exact­ly the kind of pow­er of words (that you men­tion) have on peo­ple and influ­ence their think­ing, and then came up with those terms.

    And whether you cede it or not (it’s some­what of a moot point), pro-choice and pro-life is exact­ly how the posi­tions are defined and debat­ed here in the US.

    I hope this answers your ques­tions. 🙂

  • #33 should be “It is scary WHEN peo­ple resort to vio­lence to make their point.”

  • Also, phras­ing the issue as pro-choice and pro-life implies that the oth­er side is anti-choice (curb­ing your free­dom) and anti-life (indulge in killing, don’t believe in the sanc­ti­ty of life) respec­tive­ly.
    I guess what I meant was that words can be decep­tive, and are used to eas­i­ly manip­u­late and ral­ly peo­ple, and that’s why it’s impor­tant to cut through the bull and explore deep­er as to what exact­ly does one mean by words and phras­es, and what do they stand for.
    I am for women’s rights to make their own choic­es, but the debate doesn’t real­ly affect me direct­ly (I’m a sin­gle guy), so I’m not attached to use of spe­cif­ic phras­es that both sides use.

  • Amit: //The very fact that the terms used are “pro-choice” and “pro-life” instead of “pro-abor­tion” and “anti-abor­tion” is a good indi­ca­tor of how both sides choose to present their posi­tions to the larg­er pub­lic. That’s what I meant. Nei­ther par­ty uses the term “abor­tion,” prob­a­bly because of the moral impli­ca­tions asso­ci­at­ed with the word.//
    I’m not sure about the sides involved, but ratio­nal peo­ple would choose pro-choice and pro-life to mean the same thing, by def­i­n­i­tion.

    When you say nei­ther par­ty uses the term abor­tion, yes, it is a sad state of affairs, but do look up the link in my pre­vi­ous com­ment.

    Your thoughts about peo­ple or enti­ties manip­u­lat­ing the def­i­n­i­tions of con­tro­ver­sial words is def­i­nite­ly worth­while.

    Rand offers many prac­ti­cal exam­ples of it in her trea­tise “Cap­i­tal­ism: An Unknown Ide­al”, where many such con­cepts like “com­mon good”, “publc inter­est”, etc. are dis­sect­ed to reveal their true mean­ing.

    You say://words can be decep­tive, and are used to eas­i­ly manip­u­late and ral­ly peo­ple, and that’s why it’s impor­tant to cut through the bull and explore deep­er as to what exact­ly does one mean by words and phras­es, and what do they stand for.//

    That’s exact­ly my point! You said it your­self! And that is why, my refus­ing to cede the “pro-life” word or con­cept to the anti-abor­tion­ists is not moot!

  • And that is why, my refus­ing to cede the “pro-life” word or con­cept to the anti-abor­tion­ists is not moot!

    Well, good luck chang­ing the terms of the debate here in the US!! 🙂 🙂

    I just looked up the wiki entry and it has some details on the use of terms.

    You might also want to check out PR Watch on how the infor­ma­tion is manip­u­lat­ed.

  • Amit wrote:

    I do think that legal­ly, the com­pa­ny was with­in its rights to refuse, but it does raise con­cerns over con­trol and cen­sor­ing of infor­ma­tion…

    Let’s say a group of ortho­dox Hin­du share­hold­ers own and run a restau­rant. A fam­i­ly of Mus­lims arrive to have din­ner at the restau­rant, and demand that beef be served. Does the restau­rant have a right to refuse to serve beef? Will you call it con­trol and cen­sor­ing of the dietary habits of the Mus­lims? If a reg­u­la­to­ry act were to be passed, that makes it manda­to­ry on all restau­rant busi­ness­es to serve beef (also pork, dogs, what­ev­er), I’d call that a gross infringe­ment of the fun­da­men­tal rights of the restau­rant own­ers, wouldn’t you?

    Iff (math alert!) Verizon’s share­hold­ers were all anti-abor­tion­ists, and would loathe to serve pro-abor­tion mes­sages through their assets, how can it be denounced as con­trol and cen­sor­ing of infor­ma­tion?

  • First off, “raise con­cerns” != “denounc­ing.”
    Please do not twist my words.

    I think your anal­o­gy is flawed. If the restau­rant is already serv­ing beef, then there shouldn’t be any beef (par­don the pun) in serv­ing it to Mus­lims. The anti-abor­tion group didn’t ask for any­thing that Ver­i­zon doesn’t already pro­vide (to oth­ers).

    If some­one refus­es to serve a group which comes across as arbi­trary, it is not an unrea­son­able expec­ta­tion to pro­vide an answer as to what their rea­son is, or dis­cuss this issue in press.

  • pro-abor­tion group, not anti.

  • Amit: //Well, good luck chang­ing the terms of the debate here in the US!!//
    No need of sar­casm here, Amit. I’m not empow­ered to change the terms of the debate in the US, but am empow­ered to clar­i­fy how they’re used and inter­pret­ed on my blog. 🙂

    Thanks for the Wiki entry, it is quite illu­mi­nat­ing: //Both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are exam­ples of polit­i­cal fram­ing: they are terms which pur­pose­ly try to define their philoso­phies in the best pos­si­ble light, while by def­i­n­i­tion attempt­ing to describe their oppo­si­tion in the worst pos­si­ble light…//
    I must clar­i­fy again that I do not sub­scribe to this polit­i­cal fram­ing of these phras­es. I think it is wrong.

    Your PR Watch link unfor­tu­nate­ly led to a gener­ic index of hun­dreds of arti­cles, so I would be grate­ful if you can link to what exact­ly you intend­ed.

    I agree that RTF’s exam­ple was not exact­ly sim­i­lar to the case we’re dis­cussing (as you’ve right­ly point­ed out). But to be fair, RTF didn’t twist your words, he was using his own.

    Again, I too share your con­cerns, and that’s why this post.

    How­ev­er, I think the recur­ring dif­fer­ence in your per­spec­tive and mine is illus­trat­ed by your use of the words ‘ser­vice’ and ‘serve’.

    You say “if some­one refus­es to serve a group…”. Is Ver­i­zon engaged in offer­ing a ser­vice? Yes. When it offers a ser­vice, is it a vol­un­tary busi­ness trans­ac­tion from both sides? Or is Ver­i­zon or any com­pa­ny that offers any kind of ser­vice oblig­at­ed to pro­vide it to all? Does it reserve the right of refusal arbi­trar­i­ly or is that dis­crim­i­na­tion?

    I’ll again refer to the Google exam­ple. For­get Ver­i­zon. Is Google dis­crim­i­nat­ing when it refus­es an ad and is not held respon­si­ble to explain? Does this mean the court rul­ing about Google is wrong and needs to be chal­lenged?

  • Mahen­dra, I was not being sar­cas­tic. If you inter­pret­ed it that way, then *shrug*. Easy to mis­in­ter­pret on the Inter­net. 🙂

    Nice of you to come to TRF’s defense (a ratio­nal­ist col­lec­tive, eh 😉 ), but since I didn’t denounce Ver­i­zon any­where in my com­ments, why would s/he use that term when respond­ing to my words and quot­ing them, oth­er than to force words in my mouth? An epis­te­mo­log­i­cal error maybe? 😛 🙂
    Unless it was addressed to some­one else who denounced Ver­i­zon. In that case, I’m sor­ry I attrib­uted “twist­ing my words” to him.

    I think you are nit-pick­ing when you bring up the exam­ple of “serve” and “ser­vice.” I was going with the beef-serv­ing exam­ple that TRF men­tioned. If it makes you hap­py, then in my last state­ment, read it as “pro­vide ser­vice” instead of “serve.”

    I must clar­i­fy again that I do not sub­scribe to this polit­i­cal fram­ing of these phras­es. I think it is wrong.
    Pro­fes­sor, I do under­stand Eng­lish and I did read your ear­li­er com­ments, so go easy on the con­de­scen­sion an rep­e­ti­tion please. 🙂

    Since I already agree with women’s rights to make their own deci­sion when it comes to abor­tion, this argu­ment is pedan­tic. And unin­ter­est­ing to me. I don’t real­ly care either way as to which term is used, and if you reject the use of pro-life by anti-abor­tion­ists, that’s your choice. I pre­fer to play a sec­ondary and sup­port­ive role and let the women be the ones mak­ing their own deci­sions on this debate. It’s just a lit­tle odd when men are so vehe­ment­ly debat­ing women’s rights and what should and shouldn’t be, and rush to define the terms of the debate.

    I pro­vid­ed the link to PR watch as a source for infor­ma­tion manip­u­la­tion that goes on in the soci­ety and media since you seemed inter­est­ed in the pow­er of words and how they influ­ence people’s think­ing. It’s up to you as to which arti­cle you read or not, since you love to read. They have a list of top­ics in the left hand col­umn.

    Why for­get Ver­i­zon? I can give you many analo­gies that illus­trate this point, but an anal­o­gy goes only so far. When TRF comes up with an anal­o­gy regard­ing beef, is beef real­ly the same as free­dom of speech? If the restau­rant served beef to every­one but refused to serve beef to one per­son because her views are at odds with the restau­rant owner’s regard­ing abor­tion, then that’s a cause for con­cern. More so, if she needs to eat to sur­vive (like democ­ra­cy needs free­dom-of-speech). (But even this anal­o­gy is not per­fect because free­dom of speech implies trans­mit­ting of ideas to oth­ers, so eat­ing food is not the best way to com­pare it.) And there was no vis­i­ble sign on the door that said, “We don’t serve pro-abor­tion­ists,” or if this pol­i­cy was not pub­li­cized. Even more so if it’s the only restau­rant in town. And she is well with­in her rights to ques­tion the deci­sion, raise it in the media and dis­cuss it in the pub­lic fora. Why should that be objec­tion­able to free­dom-lovers? Yes, she can also use her pock­et­book, but that doesn’t exclude rais­ing her voice. If some­thing is per­ceived as arbi­trary, she has the right to ques­tion it.

    Dif­fer­ent busi­ness­es oper­ate under dif­fer­ent rules/guidelines. So what may work for a news­pa­per may not work for TV or radio (even though all three fall under the broad umbrel­la of “media”) or a restau­rant, or a gro­cery store. What if the anal­o­gy is of a doc­tor in a vil­lage refus­ing to treat a patient because the patient believes in abor­tion, where­as the doc­tor doesn’t? And he’s the only doc­tor in town? And the patient’s life depends on the doc­tor treat­ing him? But it’s not the same, because doc­tors have the Hip­po­crat­ic oath, where­as Ver­i­zon doesn’t. So, analo­gies don’t always work 100%.

    And the sit­u­a­tion would be dif­fer­ent if Ver­i­zon was the only ser­vice provider in the mar­ket hav­ing a monop­oly, than if there were oth­er com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing the same ser­vice. I’ll refer you to my con­clu­sion in com­ment #31.

    Seems like I touched a raw nerve some­where with my com­ments, and if so, my apolo­gies. But I’ve said enough on this post and I don’t see any need to repeat myself, or con­tin­ue to argue for argument’s sake.

  • Amit: no apolo­gies need­ed!

  • Thanks a lot, She­faly. This news is actu­al­ly off-top­ic here, but is very rel­e­vant to the long dis­cus­sion thread at When will this stop?, and sup­ports Ram­bodoc and Ergo’s per­spec­tive in that con­ver­sa­tion.

  • The Intel­lec­tu­al Blog­ger Award is pay­ing rich div­i­dends: a must-read intro­duc­tion of the book “Unspeak” that dis­cuss­es how words are used as weapons:

    http://unspeak.net/introduction/