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Remarks by AT&T's James Cicconi on Internet Hate

Posted: November 17, 2008

Remarks by James Cicconi
AT&T Senior Executive Vice President – External and Legislative Affairs
(as prepared)

To the Global Summit On Internet Hate Speech
November 17, 2008, Washington, D.C.

Before I share any personal thoughts, I'd like to congratulate the Anti-Defamation League and the International Network Against Cyber-Hate for focusing the world's attention on the troubling and timely issue of Internet hate speech.

And on behalf of AT&T, I want to thank Ambassador Vinmont and the people of France for hosting this conference here at La Maison Francaise.

Hate speech is probably as old as speech itself.

And long before the Internet, hate speech was the dark side of every advance in mass communications.

On a Sunday night in the Depression year of 1933, my grandparents sat beside their radio and listened carefully to the first of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats.

Radio was still new as a nationwide medium. And Roosevelt was a master of it.  He used that first Fireside Chat to reassure people that the banks would be safe to use when they re-opened the next morning, after a four-day shutdown.  Those Fireside Chats inspired a nation and attracted a radio audience of 60 million, huge for that time.

But while Roosevelt was using radio to inspire hope, Charles Coughlin was using the same medium for a very different purpose.

Coughlin also had a gift for communicating over the radio. His broadcasts began as commentary on the international banking system, but degenerated into hate speech. No history of anti-Semitism in America is complete without a reference to the Coughlin broadcasts of the 1930s. And those broadcasts reached an audience of 40 million people.

Fast forward to today's Internet society. And the dynamics of mass communication have changed almost beyond recognition.

There are an estimated 1.3 billion people connected to the Internet worldwide. Each one of them has the potential to reach an audience exponentially larger than Roosevelt or Coughlin could have dreamed about.

We live in a society that sends two million e-mail messages every second.  An estimated three new blogs are created every two seconds. And You Tube now streams over five billion videos a month.  That's billion, with a "B".

We expect Internet traffic will continue to grow at an astounding 60 percent a year.  And even in this troubled economy, communications companies in North America are investing in excess of $60 billion a year in broadband technology.

At AT&T, we just completed a $1 billion investment that quadrupled the capacity of our global backbone network. Every business day that network carries 16 petabytes of data in multiple forms. That's enough information to provide everyone on this planet with two and half 500-page novels, every day.

But all this power our company has to move and manage information does not include the power to censor it.  Not even in the case of hate speech.

Broadband network operators like AT&T work in a politically charged marketplace.  I don't want to mire you in the politics of that market. But you should understand that even our efforts to keep the flow of traffic moving efficiently bring charges of censorship and discrimination from certain quarters.  In fact, part of the current 'net neutrality debate is driven by those who think that government intervention is necessary to protect free expression on the Internet.

Like every other broadband network provider should be, AT&T is actively committed to an open Internet.   We see our services as enabling free expression online, and we take that as a serious responsibility to our customers. In fact, we put that commitment in writing by including it in our customer agreements.

As many of you know, while Web site operators have a responsibility to be involved in the content that is allowed or promoted on their sites, there are only narrow legal circumstances where an Internet Service Provider can block access to content. And even those circumstances are not always clear.

I say this to be candid about what communications companies can and cannot do about Internet hate speech. 

Chris Wolf and other First Amendment experts will discuss the legal issues in detail later. For now, please understand that the day-to-day reality of our broadband business is that we have to be content agnostic so long as that content is legal. But being content agnostic doesn't mean being content indifferent. Especially not where children are concerned.

And our most effective work against hate speech comes under the umbrella of Internet safety. Like the many other companies involved in this effort, we've found that education is far and away the most effective tool.

For us, the education effort starts with raising parents' awareness of the potential online dangers for their children. Those dangers range from cyberbullying to online sexual predators and identity theft.

We provide a lot of information and guidance online. We urge parents to be involved with their kids' online life, to be aware of what information they're posting about themselves, what social networks they use and what websites they visit.

Ideally this kind of information can be shared voluntarily. In fact, we encourage parents and children to explore the Internet together. But we're not naïve. So we also offer parents easy to use software to help them be as involved in their kids' lives online as they are offline.

When it comes to online activity and content, we don't make choices on behalf of families. But we do try to give parents the education and technology tools they need to make those choices themselves.

There is no such thing as being too involved when it comes to keeping your child safe online.

With the help of some excellent online safety advocates and organizations such as iKeepSafe and Enough Is Enough, we've helped fund and develop Internet safety education programs that will reach millions of students next year.  

We urge kids to think about the three C's of Internet safety: Content … Conduct … and Contact.  That means avoiding inappropriate content, keeping their online conduct within the bounds of Internet safety and avoiding personal contact with strangers they encounter online.

I want to emphasize that AT&T is not alone in its support for Internet safety. Many other companies involved with Internet technology are part of this effort. And we've joined with a number of them by serving on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. That group was convened through a landmark agreement between 49 state attorneys general and MySpace to identify tools and technology to create a safer Internet for children. 

We've also had the benefit of partnering with some outstanding non-profit organizations, including the Family Online Safety Institute – an industry-based organization created to make the Internet safer for kids and families while preserving free expression. . And I'm happy to say that Brent Olson of AT&T currently serves as the Institute's chairman.

Working closely with organizations like this has given us some insight into current trends in online safety. We've learned, for instance, that "predators prey where kids play."   So texting is becoming a popular weapon for child predators, who are turning to real time communications tools such as Chat, I.M. and now text. They've learned that real-time communication is harder to monitor than email. But the industry is working with law enforcement to close that gap.

Perhaps the saddest thing we've come to realize is the growing problem of cyber-bullying and its often devastating impact on victims. Everyone is a potential target—from a student body president to the awkward lonely child. The anonymity the Internet can provide means anyone, even the "unlikeliest" child, can be an instigator or a victim. 

According to one of our partner organizations, half of students admit to being bullied online, while an estimated 79 percent of teens say cyber bullying is a problem.  As adults, we must teach children not only how to be safe on the Internet, but also how to be responsible when using such a powerful communications tool.

But what about protecting kids from the hideous influence of religious, racial, and homophobic Internet hate speech? Don't the companies whose technology makes that speech possible share in the responsibility to fight it?

 I think we do.

We recently did an online search of just a few of the extremist groups listed on the ADL Web site.  In just a few minutes of browsing I came across aphorisms like "Racial Purity is Our Nation's Security" and "Trade 7 million Jews for $2 a gallon gas."

This kind of online hate speech is an infectious disease. Nobody has a cure, but we all have a responsibility to keep the infection from spreading, especially to children.

And once again, the most effective tool is education and more information for Internet users.

So at AT&T, we're looking into the possibility of expanding our Internet Safety Education program to deal specifically with Internet hate speech.

We would need some expert guidance from the education community. But hopefully we could start by advising parents on protecting their children from the influence of hate speech sites ---- just the way they protect them from online pornography and predators.

It's unreasonable to think we could keep any child from eventually being exposed to hate speech, online or off. But I'd like to see the Internet industry help parents and their children to recognize hate speech for the disease that it is. Because the best antidote for that disease is education and awareness.

Meanwhile, we'll continue our own education on what the Internet can do for society. This incredible medium is barely more than an adolescent. And despite all the positive change it's brought over the last 15 years, the best is yet to come.

Here in the U.S., 55 percent of homes now have direct broadband connections. And as we move closer to the goal of universal broadband service, we move closer to a world where Internet connections will enrich our lives more profoundly than anything we've seen before.

If you think about it, the Internet is accomplishing something never before done in human history -- it is making the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of civilization available to everyone, everywhere.  No longer will knowledge be available only to those able to access it or afford it.  The Internet is truly democratizing knowledge.  And this is a wonderful thing.

So I'm excited about the places Internet technology is taking us. Unfortunately, some extremist groups will come along for the ride.

Just as the Internet is making available to everyone the vast store of human learning, it is also making available to everyone the darkest thoughts and most dangerous ideologies that have periodically infected civilization.   

The benefits offered by the Internet tower over the hate messages offered by these groups. But that doesn't mean the Internet industry can ignore those messages or dismiss them as the lunacy of the extreme left or right.

It might not be possible to eliminate online hate speech completely. But we cannot make the mistake of ignoring it. History has taught all of us the dangers of passivity in the face of evil. And the responsibility to speak out against hate speech goes well beyond the targets of that speech.

Let me close by adding that it is an honor to be here with so many people who see that common responsibility so clearly.

Thank you all very much.

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