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In the US, could a phone company, theoretically, suppress certain kinds of speech by censoring certain words or phrases as they’re being transmitted over the phone company’s infrastructure? In order to set aside privacy issues, let's say we’re talking about an automated block on certain words in an SMS or in an audio call.

What about messaging apps like ichat or whatsapp?

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    Do you mean technically is it possible, or legally would they be able to?
    – Stilez
    Jan 29 at 6:57
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    @Stilez this is a question on the Law Stack Exchange site.
    – Tim
    Jan 29 at 14:14

2 Answers 2

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No, they may not.

Telephone companies are considered "common carriers," and they are therefore generally prohibited from unreasonably discriminating against customers under the Communications Act of 1932.

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    And relevantly for this question, that includes discriminating based on the content of the messages they are asked to carry.
    – Mark
    Jan 29 at 4:25
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    Where does discrimination fall anywhere near censoring?
    – Greendrake
    Jan 29 at 7:36
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    A copy shop refusing to print copied of Mein Kampf would not be unreasonably discriminating. A Christian bookstore that refused to sell copies of books advocating Satanism would not be unreasonably discriminating. Jan 29 at 8:06
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    Are mobile carriers considered common carrier? Given that mobile providers carry the Internet, and one of net neutrality's core arguments is that ISPs should be common carriers, then at least when acting as an ISP a mobile provider wouldn't be common carrier. As for SMS, that's an interesting question. For calls, I'd want to lean towards that in that scenario even mobile carriers would be closer to common carrier, but if the communication is mobile-to-mobile (and never hits the PSTN), then it might not be.
    – fdmillion
    Jan 29 at 9:00
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    Does that "No, they may not." apply to the messaging apps too? Because the question asks about "phone companies or messaging apps", but you only explicitly mention the first.
    – ilkkachu
    Jan 29 at 15:25
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Yes. They could. The first amendment does not apply to private companies.

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    Thanks it seems clear in the case of the apps, but I thought there might be some restrictions arising from a utility company’s relationship with governments (leases of land, airwaves etc). For instance it does seem like its not permitted for a utility company to refuse service to someone for his political views. Whereas apple can do that no problem. Jan 28 at 18:00
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    Are you sure about this? In the US telephone companies are "common carriers" and cannot monitor or censor user's communications. Facebook, Twitter, and the like can censor or even ban users but they are not common carriers.
    – jwh20
    Jan 28 at 18:37
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    @jwh20 I am 100% sure that the U.S. Constitution including the 1st & 4th Amendment and the 14th Amendment that incorporates 1at & 4th Amendment rights against state & local governments does not apply to private firms. Any protection for the privacy of telephone communications arises under state and federal statutes, FCC regulations, and state utility regulations, and is strictly limited to the provisions of those statutes and regulations. Wiretapping statutes are generally inapplicable to phone companies operating their own systems of their own accord (rather than e.g. for law enforcement).
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 28 at 19:09
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    @ohwilleke the question is asking about constitutionally protected speech, but it's not asking whether the companies cannot restrict this type of speech because it is unconstitutional. So if there are legal protections of privacy, that would still be applicable to this question. It's not a question about constitutionality, at least not exclusively. Restrictions on common carrier are not based on constitutional guarantees, either. So the real meat of the question is what type of restrictions on common carriers, if any, would preclude it from censoring speech.
    – grovkin
    Jan 28 at 23:00
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    @ohwilleke, um, are you saying that phone companies can censor speech, except that there's state and federal statutes, FCC regulations etc which say they don't get to do that? Which one is it?
    – ilkkachu
    Jan 29 at 15:27

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