Watchdogs Slam FCC's Text Messaging Proposal

The Federal Communications Commission's plan for text messaging could allow carriers to censor political speech, engage in price-gouging and violate consumers' privacy, watchdogs warn in a new letter to the agency.

The letter comes in response to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's recent proposal to classify text-messaging as an “information” service. If approved, text-messaging services won't be subject to the same common carrier rules as telephone calls -- including rules that prohibit blocking, as well as rules requiring carriers to protect people's privacy and engage in fair billing practices.

“We fear that permitting carriers to block messages without any oversight will result in censoring time-critical speech, hamper efforts to organize political engagement and severely restrict the ability of civil rights organizations, religious organizations, and other non-commercial organizations to use texting platforms to their full capability,” Public Knowledge, the Open Technology Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and more than a dozen other groups write.

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The groups note that carriers have prohibited groups from using short-codes for “controversial” messages since at least 2007, when Verizon Wireless prevented the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America to send SMS alerts to people who had requested them. (After an article about the issue appeared in The New York Times, Verizon changed its position.)

NARAL Pro-Choice isn't unique, the groups write. “Organizations such as Catholic Relief Services have had their texting programs threatened with blocking for experimenting with new donation programs,” the letter states. “Immigration rights activists have been unable to reach important constituencies because certain carriers would not honor their short codes.”

Public Knowledge and the other groups add that classifying text messaging as an “information service,” and not a Title II “telecommunications service” could end a host of consumer protections -- including the agency's truth-in-billing standards, prohibitions on price gouging and rules requiring telephone carriers to keep customers' information confidential.

For his part, Pai contends that classifying text messages as a largely unregulated “information” service will enable carriers to combat robotexts. Not surprisingly, the industry group CTIA, which represents wireless companies, supports Pai. That group says passage of Pai's proposal “will preserve the wireless industry’s ability to protect consumers from unwanted spam messages (Robotexts) in today’s competitive messaging environment.”

But the consumer groups say the FCC can prohibit carriers from blocking texts based on content, while still allowing the carries to block spammy robotexts.

“While we all support the goal of reducing spam and robocalls, the Commission has repeatedly made clear in the past that Title II classification does not prevent carriers from using technological means to block unwanted texts or robocalls,” the groups write.

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