Verizon bans domestic surveillance and net neutrality articles from tech news site

At SugarString, Verizon's tech news site, Verizon banned surveillance and net neutrality from topics journalists can cover while reporting on news that people supposedly 'really care about today.'

Verizon
Credit: Eric Hauser

There’s been a big stinky splash about Verizon using a privacy-decimating “perma cookie” so advertisers can track Verizon customers across the web. It works by Verizon injecting a Unique Identifier Header (UIDH) at the end of HTTP connections. As Jonathan Mayer, a computer scientist and lawyer at Stanford, explained, “In short, Verizon is packaging and selling subscriber information, acting as a data broker on real-time advertising exchanges.”

Security researcher Kenneth White whipped up a sniff test that checks if Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, Bell Canada or Vodacom are actively sending a unique identifier tracking beacon to every site you visit. Make sure you are connected via LTE/4G/3G and not Wi-Fi, then go here to check if any information follows “Broadcast UID.”

Verizon told Wired that users can opt-out of this tracking, but Mayer pointed out that tweaking your Verizon privacy settings, doesn't stop an X-UIDH header from being sent. Instead, it only prevents “Verizon from selling information about a user.”

You know where you won’t hear about this tracking? SugarString.com is where; it’s Verizon’s tech news website.

When trying to recruit The Daily Dot reporter Patrick Howell O'Neill, SugarString Editor-in-Chief Cole Stryker revealed that writers are not allowed to cover domestic surveillance or net neutrality. "It's not advertorial. Think Motherboard (which was sponsored by Dell)." Stryker then noted, "Downside is there are two verboten topics (spying and net neutrality), but I've been given a pretty wide berth to cover pretty much all other topics that touch tech in some way."

O’Neill reported, “Other reporters, who asked not to be named, have confirmed that they have received the same recruiting pitch with the same rules: No articles about surveillance or net neutrality.”

As Daily Dot reported, Verizon Wireless registered SugarString in June of this year. Yet “Verizon’s decision to build a technology news site that  flat-out ignores two of the biggest questions we have about the future of technology raises key questions about how the site can build a fair, comprehensive, and honest journalistic institution.”

Virtually every story currently on the front page of SugarString—articles about GPS being used by law enforcement, anonymity hardware enabling digital activists, and artists on the Deep Web—would typically include information on American surveillance of the Internet and net neutrality to give the reader the context to make sure she’s fully informed.

But none of articles do that. At best, they dance around the issue and talk about how other countries aside from the U.S. conduct surveillance. That self-censorship puts blinders on the reader, never giving her all the information she should have—information that, not coincidentally, tends to make Verizon and other powerful interests look very, very bad. 

We are quite literally surrounded by surveillance and have been for years. While SugarString apparently permits its writers to point out the evils of government surveillance in China, banning topics like domestic surveillance effectively ties a writer’s hands and can skew a story. It's an ethical dilemma. 

Most companies have a blog and many of those spout propaganda. But those sites are not trying to be the next Wired and cover “what millennials really care about today.” Wow, that's seriously messed up if Verizon believes people don't care about those hot tech issues. Banning topics like net neutrality and U.S. government surveillance from tech news because reporting on it would put the parent company in a bad light is just bad business. Verizon might as well just stick to a company blog to promote its corporate propaganda. 

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