Private Censorship on the Net


Broadcasting a Pearl Jam concert over the web (I'm told the kids call it “webcasting”), AT&T censored out a lyric critical of President Bush. After an outcry by fans and criticism from the band, AT&T issued a public apology . The company took full responsibility and announced that censorship of political speech is “totally against [their] policy.” Internet activists , however, see the episode as a parable about the need for Net Neutrality – ensuring through governmental oversight that ISPs can't discriminate between packets. While that's an interesting take on what happened, it's not quite on point: this was content discrimination, not price discrimination.

But it does highight one problem with the increasing importance of the internet as a public communicative space. There are very strict limits on the government's ability to regulate or restrict speech based on content. There are significantly fewer restraints on what private actors can do. An internet that you can only access by purchasing services from one of a handful of ISPs is an internet that can potentially be re-shaped by their censorship practices. China knows that already. So far public pressure is keeping providers from content filtering – but Google has announced its intention to filter YouTube videos for copyright infringement. In an era of increasing media consolidation, the market might not be able to handle this one. Or am I just being paranoid?

Thumbnail photo courtesy of deep schismic .

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