Commentary

Social Media Guru Danah Boyd Sides With Yahoo In Text-Spam Battle

Social media guru Danah Boyd is backing Yahoo in a lawsuit alleging that the company violated a consumer protection law by sending unsolicited SMS messages.

Boyd, who was paid $300 an hour by Yahoo for her time, says in a report that the SMS messages at the heart of the lawsuit provide "a direct benefit to users."

The dispute, which is pending in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, centers on a Yahoo Messenger feature that converts instant messages into text messages. Two people -- Rachel Johnson and Zenaida Calderin -- say in a class-action lawsuit that the feature violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. That law prohibits companies from using automated dialers to send SMS messages to people.

Yahoo allegedly sent at least two text messages to both of the consumers. One came from other users, while the second -- a "Welcome" message -- explained the first one. The lawsuit stems only from the explanatory "Welcome" messages.

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Boyd, author of the recent "It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens," says in her report that the Welcome message serves an important function. "Without the context provided by the Welcome Message, the messages received by the cell phone user by their computer-using friends can be quite cryptic," she writes.

That's because the SMS messages don't always include people's full names or email addresses. The Welcome Message, however, makes clear that the SMS was sent by a Yahoo user -- enabling recipients to "quickly identify" the source of the message, Boyd writes.

Lawyers for Johnson and Calderin say in papers filed this week that the judge shouldn't consider Boyd's report, arguing that it is irrelevant to whether Yahoo violated the statute by using autodialers to send SMS messages without recipients' consent. They also argue that Boyd doesn't "employ any reliable, testable methodology" in her report.

This case isn't Yahoo's only brush with accusations that it sent people unwanted texts. The company also was sued recently for allegedly sending 27,000 unwanted text alerts to a Philadelphia man who had a recycled phone. The messages were all intended for the phone's previous owner, who apparently signed up for a former Yahoo service that converted emails to text messages and sent them to users' phones.

A federal judge dismissed that case last year, but the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering whether to revive the matter.

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