AT&T and the New Gatekeepers of Speech

Oct 16, 2012
Matt Cagle

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

When Apple expanded the availability of its FaceTime videochat app to cell networks, AT&T responded by announcing that only iPhone and iPad users with a high-priced "Mobile Share" data plan would get to use the app on its network. In other words, ordinary AT&T customers—many of whom pay the carrier both for their mobile device and for the data they use—have been cut off from an easy way to communicate with friends and family. We are disappointed to see AT&T use its position to hinder, rather than help, its customers' communications, and we urge you to join advocates for Internet free speech and the deaf by voicing your concerns.

AT&T's policy forces owners of iPhones and iPads who want to use FaceTime to pay more based solely on the app they choose to use. The FaceTime-friendly Mobile Share plans include a single data allowance to be shared between a customer's multiple devices. These plans are generally more expensive than AT&T's similarly-sized standard data plans. Customers who only use a single AT&T device are simply barred from FaceTime even if they pay for a high-capacity data plan. The FCC's 2010 Open Internet rules were designed to prohibit mobile providers from blocking this sort of application, yet AT&T denies the rules even apply. In other words, AT&T believes it has the authority to control not only how much data its users generate, but even how they use the data they already pay for.

Past missteps show how AT&T and other gatekeepers of digital communication are all too willing to restrict speech. During a Lollapalooza concert webcast in 2007, AT&T was pilloried for censoring Eddie Vedder's comments about President George W. Bush. The company also gained attention for the temporary blocking of the infamous 4chan website for the ostensible purpose of protecting its users from malicious web activity. Then there was Facebook's refusal to host advertisements by a drug policy reform group, the inability of Apple's voice-activated service Siri to locate abortion clinics for users, and PayPal's short-lived refusal to process payments for certain erotic books. AT&T's FaceTime decision is cause for concern because it is yet another example of speech regulation by a digital company.

With so much of our speech online these days, the AT&Ts of the digital world have the kind of power to restrict speech that once rested solely with the government. Unlike a protest or a newsletter, speech on a device can be silenced with the flip of a digital switch. And while the First Amendment places limits on the government's power to censor, its language alone cannot prevent a company from prioritizing business over free speech. It is our job to ensure that the principles underlying the First Amendment become norms in our digital world.

AT&T's decision silences the speech of its paying customers and sets a bad example for other gatekeepers of online speech. One of the Internet's great advantages is the choice it gives to individuals over how to communicate. That advantage disappears when companies like AT&T block channels of communication. If you are an AT&T customer who also feels like you have been taken hostage or slapped in the face by this move, speak out! There's also a petition online sponsored by Free Press, an open Internet organization. Sign it here and tell companies that you demand the same right to free speech online that you enjoy offline.

Matthew Cagle is a Volunteer Attorney for Technology and Civil Liberties with the ACLU of Northern California.