I Go Away for a Week and AT&T Gets Cocky

So I trot off to enjoy my regular vacation from the 21st Century at the annual Pennsic War to discover that AT&T has taken my brief absence as an excuse to get cocky and suck up even more to the Bush Administration by block Pearl Jam’s anti-W lyrics. “Oopsie,” says AT&T. “All an honest mistake! Really!” Except — surprise! — it now appears that AT&T may also have blocked other groups during other live performances when criticizing Bush.

Isn’t it amazing how these “accidents” always seem to go in one direction rather than another? For example, wasn’t it just the most amazing coincidence last year when Comcast “accidently” snipped off an embarassing clip from a video on demand news report?

One may ask why these companies try to get away with such nonesense. The answer is (a) it doesn’t hurt them to try; and (b) they do get away with it. Especially when it comes to time sensitive speech, there is really no penalty for AT&T, Comcast, or any other megacorp with market power to engage in this form of corporate censorship.

On the other hand, as I observed recently, the potential rewards of sucking up to this administration can be quite considerable. AT&T has certainly shown it knows how to suck up to this Administration. And, in return, the Bush Administration Department of Justice let through the AT&T/BellSouth merger with a nod and a wink.

So we can expect to continue to see such “accidents” in the future, while the corporations and their cheerleaders brush off such corporate censorship as inconsequential random events that cannot possibly warrant prophylactic regulation. That we have achieved the worst excess of government censorship through the simple expedient of outsourcing is ignored and disregarded by these Libertarian defenders of the status quo in much the same way they ignore the reality that certain forms of regulation are a necessary prerequisite to genuinely competitive markets. But better the forms of free speech and the trappings of competition then actual free speech and real competition — if the cost of achieving either is to admit a flaw in the sacred dogma of the Gods of the Marketplace.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. Like many, I don’t see this episode as particularly consequential. If it was supposed to be censorship, what a delightful opportunity they created for you! I would love to joust with opponents so incompetent.

    But, more to the substance of your post, I don’t think it’s an opportunity to skewer libertarians. They would have it so that corporations don’t have any incentive to suck up to politicians.

    To the extent they do, corporations suck up *because* of things like “prophylactic regulation,” which ties the welfare of the corporation and its owners to the politicians in power at any given time.

  2. Jim:

    Corporations, like any set of rational actors, seek to manipulate government to their advanatge.

    My complaint with Libertarians is that while there is mush interest in achieving the academic perfection of a world governed almost exclusively by private contracts, it ignores the reality that we will never get there — in no small part because companies like AT&T do not want it so.

    Libertarians purport to hate government regulation because it is anathema to fundamental freedoms. As a theoretic matter, I agree. But as a practical matter, the result of such deregulation is to move the power of government into the hands of unrestrained private actors. I have come to regard this as a far greater evil.

    My complaint, which I will continue to press, is that Libertarians appear quite content to ignore the reality of corporate censorship that flows from effictively placing unregulated control of the critical means of communications in the hands of a few dominant actors merely because they are private actors — without regard to whether, as a practical matter, the dangers that Libertarians decry nevertheless come to pass.

    As for the stupidity of AT&T in this context, as I said above, they apparently have gotten away with it before. And, while it has provided some momentary fodder among believers in the blogosphere, it is unlikely to do them any serious harm. Given the potential rewards for sucking up to this administration, why shouldn’t a rational corporate actor behave this way?

  3. Agreed: Given the potential rewards for sucking up to (any!) administration, rational corporate actors do so, as we’ve (supposedly) seen here.

    It follows that if you *take away* the rewards, rational corporate actors will be *less likely* to act that way, given other more productive uses of their time and effort, does it not?

    Ideal regulation – for these purposes, regulation not subject to co-option by corporate interests – is no less imaginary and no more achievable than the libertarian ideal. You can’t fairly criticize the libertarian ideal as impractical if you won’t compare it to the practical problems with regulation. Indeed, the behavior to which you object is one of those problems!

    (Are we in perfect ideological counter-equipoise? . . . 😉

  4. It is an excellent example of how intelligent and rational people can, in good faith, examine the same set of facts and come to completely opposite conclusions.

    And always a pleasure to argue. 🙂

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