It’s not surprising that a cable company wouldn’t want to run an ad that criticizes it. But telecom giants choosing to censor ads they don’t like—as with a recent campaign ad that Charter refused to air—sets a disturbing precedent. It makes these companies as gatekeepers of election information, and in a post-net neutrality world could pave the way to giving Big Telecom a dystopian authority to dictate which political messages voters receive.
The ad in question is a 30 second spot from New York Democratic Congressional candidate Anthony Brindisi, a New York state representative.
“If you’re watching this ad on Spectrum cable, you’re getting ripped off,” Brindisi says while staring into the camera. “Spectrum has jacked up rates almost double. It’s why I fought to have the state take legal action against Spectrum. Congress needs to go after them, too.”
Brindisi told the New York Times that his campaign had placed previous ads with Charter, but that this specific ad was denied. The spot criticizes Brindisi’s opponent, Claudia Tenney, framing her as a puppet for big telecom providers like Charter. Tenney’s campaign has received donations from major telecom providers, including Charter and Comcast, but they are far from her biggest donor.
The ad also slams Spectrum—Charter’s branding for consumer TV—for raising customer rates while benefiting from federal tax breaks.
Spectrum’s rates have increased significantly in the past year, jumping nearly 40 percent after Charter acquired Time Warner Cable, then rose again in the new year. This has been well reported, if not a point the company was eager to highlight. The company also has particularly high stakes in the New York race, since the legislature recently voted to kick the company out of the state. But do we really want telecom companies having the authority to censor political ads that don’t fit their agenda?
Cable companies have certain First Amendment protections to decide what they do or do not air, but these protections are largely to prevent being forced to air state-sponsored propaganda or the like. It’s not so cable companies can silence political messaging from candidates that haven’t promised to give them tax breaks recently.
With the elimination of net neutrality protections, the precedent is even more alarming. Now there’s an easier path for ISPs to censor, throttle, or prioritize websites of certain candidates over others.
Charter’s refusal is still an outlier, but it’s not one that we as consumers, and voters, should be okay with. Otherwise, it could be just a matter of time before the messages we see on Facebook, Google, and when we flip on the TV, all start to sound eerily similar.
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