Back when Verizon first began expressing interest in pivoting from broadband duopolist to media and advertising, you might recall that it launched a short-lived technology blog named Sugarstring. Sugarstring quickly made headlines for all the wrong reasons however, after it was revealed that Verizon was banning any new hires from writing about hot-button subjects like net neutrality, or the fact that companies like Verizon and AT&T are now bone-grafted to the nation's intelligence and surveillance apparatus.
Sugarstring is long-since dead, replaced in large part by Verizon's acquisitions of Yahoo and AOL, which also brought Huffpo, Engadget, and Techcrunch under the Verizon umbrella. And while Verizon itself has been busy using fake reporters to blatantly lie about the company's ongoing role in killing net neutrality, there's no indication (yet) that the company has pressured any of its own news outlets to quiet down on the subject. In fact, we've noted previously that some of the best reporting on net neutrality in recent months has originated at TechCrunch (this piece in particular is worth a read).
But while Verizon hasn't yet tried to get its own news outlets to quiet down on net neutrality, other now-Verizon-owned companies that used to be very active on the subject have gone dead quiet. Case in point: Tumblr, which was an integral ally in the SOPA/PIPA fight and an outspoken protector of net neutrality, is now utterly radio silent as FCC boss Ajit Pai attempts to kill the popular consumer protections. Insiders at the company this week expressed their concern to the Verge that Verizon is pressuring CEO David Karp to keep his mouth shut on the subject:
"Now, multiple sources tell The Verge that employees are concerned that Karp has been discouraged from speaking publicly on the issue, and one engineer conveyed that Karp told a group of engineers and engineering directors as much in a weekly meeting that took place shortly after SXSW. “Karp has talked about the net neutrality stuff internally, but won’t commit to supporting it externally anymore,” the engineer said. “[He] assures [us] that he is gonna keep trying to fight for the ability to fight for it publicly.” Karp did not respond to four emails asking for comment, and neither Yahoo nor Tumblr would speak about the matter on the record."
Granted Karp may just have toned down the company's rhetoric voluntarily to avoid ruffling feathers during the transition. And obviously any time a smaller company gets acquired by a larger conglomerate (especially from the historically droll and stodgy telecom sector) you'll see a major culture shift that often isn't for the better. Still, Verizon's positions on subjects like net neutrality are so hostile, Tumblr employees have grown increasingly uneasy in recent weeks, which could lead to an exodus of talent at the company:
“Some of our previous stances on issues that are really important to Tumblr employees and its community are being silenced,” said the former employee. “We've been really noisy about things like net neutrality in the past. We asked the new Head, Simon Khalaf, about it in an all-hands a few weeks ago and he said it was ‘not his problem’ and ‘above his pay grade.’” A current employee and another former employee corroborated this account."
It's unfortunate to have lost Tumblr's voice in the net neutrality fight, especially given that other industry giants like Google and Netflix have similarly gone mute on the subject, leaving consumers and small businesses increasingly alone in fighting for something vaguely resembling an open and healthy internet. And while you'd like to think Verizon is above trampling the editorial independence of former AOL and Yahoo news outlets, Verizon's Sugarstring experiment should make it pretty clear that ham-fisted attempts at censorship aren't exactly out of character for the telco.
For now, however, Verizon appears content to try and use entirely fake journalists like "Jeremy" to spread misinformation on net neutrality, as evident by this recent, comically misleading video by the company: