In the last decade the written word has been devoted largely to declaring the death of the written word. The harbingers of journalism's doom refer to dramatic charts, like this one from The Pew Research Center, that show a precipitous decline in newspaper advertising revenue. Fortunately, though, the internet is here to fill the content void, and we have technology barons to thank for becoming our new media benefactors. Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who once peddled quesadillas for Taco Bell, bought The Washington Post last year at a bargain. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar poached prolific security state reporter Glenn Greenwald to start his own publication, The Intercept. Even Facebook wants to get in on the action by convincing publishers to simply give up and post their shit directly on Facebook.
And now, there's Verizon.
Verizon is backing a publication called Sugarstring that covers technology, culture, and entertainment. All of the advertisements on Sugarstring are for Verizon. The color palette — red, everywhere — screams Verizon. Its about page, which says "Sugarstring publishes thoughtful tech-focused stories that track humanity's climb towards the new next" appears to have been written by a corporate robot employed by Verizon. Every page brandishes a badge to let you know that the content you have just consumed has been ᴘʀᴇsᴇɴᴛᴇᴅ ʙʏ ᴠᴇʀɪᴢᴏɴ. There's just two things Verizon won't be presenting, which happen to be two of the biggest stories in the world right now: stories about how Verizon is fucking over America.
Verizon's publications prohibit reporters from talking about net neutrality
As The Daily Dot has learned, Sugarstring expressly prohibits its reporters from writing anything about domestic surveillance or net neutrality. (But reporting on foreign surveillance, The Daily Dot noted, is just fine!) If you've been reading the news for the past year, you'll know that Verizon is heavily involved in both of these areas. As the country's largest wireless provider it was one of the first companies implicated in the NSA's scandalous call record collection program. And as one of the country's largest internet service providers it has thrown its weight behind killing net neutrality and making the internet worse for everyone.
The irony in Verizon's censorship is palpable. The following passage from Sugarstring appears in an article on the internet's "morality police."
When it comes to news and opinion, censors can have an impact just by closing off channels. As Columbia Law professor and digital activist Tim Wu pointed out in a 2006 article for Slate, "for every diverse Long Tail"—Chris Anderson’s concept in which seemingly unlimited digital channels theoretically guarantee distribution for even obscure music or books—"there’s a ‘Big Dog’: a boring standardized industry that isn’t sexy like Apple or Amazon but that delivers all that niche content you’re hungry for." By now, it’s fair to call Apple and Amazon "standardized industries" themselves; the audience for an artist’s work that gets vetoed by one of those "Big Dogs" will be limited to only those with the tenacity to hunt it down.
It's not totally clear if this story is self-parody, considering that Verizon is itself a "Big Dog" sitting atop a "boring standardized industry" that wants to be a gatekeeper with immense power over the transfer of information. I mean, Tim Wu is the guy who coined the term net neutrality. Verizon is laughing at you.
For now, it's easy to shrug off Sugarstring as just another hilariously dumb attempt to make a corporate brand look cool. Its format is somewhere between Digg, BuzzFeed, and Verizon's corporate blog. It appears to gather much of its content from Reddit. It's powered by Wordpress. It inexplicably has 74,000 Twitter followers. It publishes headlines like "Can you survive without chatting at work?" and "Three reasons Neil DeGrasse Tyson is wrong about innovation."
But in the broader context, Sugarstring is frightening. It resembles a future where enormous corporations that own the pipes through which speech travels also own that speech. Hell, that's not even a vision of the future; Comcast already owns NBC, and its promises for good behavior as a vertically integrated superpower have an expiration date.
So far we've been worried about the subtle effects of corporate control of the internet — stuff like data caps, and throttling, and "fast lanes." Sugarstring is something entirely different. It's brazen, disrespectful, and deeply cynical. There can only be two possibilities for its existence: Verizon thinks people aren't paying attention, or they're just too stupid to get it.
We've asked Verizon if it can handle the truth. We're no Tom Cruise, but we'll update this story if we get a response.
Update, 10/29 2:25PM ET: Verizon has just responded to our request for comment with the following statement:
SugarString is a pilot project from Verizon Wireless’ marketing group, designed to address tech trends, especially those of interest to our customers. Unlike the characterization by its new editor, Sugar String is open to all topics that fit its mission and elevate the conversation around technology.
This is known in the spin business as a "non-denial denial." In other words, it's an ambiguous response that doesn't actually address the question being asked but merely appears to.
Verizon implies in this response that its editor essentially made up the fact that the publication is not permitted to cover domestic surveillance and net neutrality topics. We asked Verizon to clarify if this is what it meant to say. Verizon declined to comment further, referring us back to its original statement.