Senate Democrats Oppose FCC Plan To Allow Text-Message Blocking

The Federal Communications Commission should abandon plans to allow carriers to block text messages, a group of Senate Democrats urge in a letter to the agency.

“In the 21st century, text messaging is as essential as telephone service, facilitating trillions of messages between senders and receivers each year,” Senators Ed Markey (Massachusetts), Ron Wyden (Oregon) and eight others write. “Reasonable access to this vital means of communication should be preserved.”

The letter comes in response to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's recent proposal to classify text-messaging as an “information” service. If Pai's proposal is approved, text-messaging services won't be subject to the same common carrier rules as telephone calls -- including rules that prohibit blocking.

The lawmakers warn that Pai's proposal could result in higher fees for organizations that send text messages.

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“By leveraging their gatekeeper role, carriers could force businesses, advocacy organizations, first responders, doctors, and any others to pay for more expensive short-code system or enterprise text messaging to reach their audience, rather than by traditional text messages,” the senators write.

Other signatories include Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland), Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California).

Like other critics, the lawmakers say Pai's proposal will enable carriers to censor messages -- as has occurred in the past. In one highly publicized incident from 2007, Verizon Wireless prevented the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America to send SMS alerts to people who had requested them. (Verizon changed its position after an article about the issue appeared in The New York Times.)

Pai argues that classifying text messages as an “information” service will allow carriers to combat robotexts. But the lawmakers -- along with Public Knowledge and other advocacy groups -- argue the FCC can prohibit carriers from censoring texts, while still allowing them to block unwanted robotexts.

Two years ago, the FCC specifically said carriers can block robocalls, even though phone calls are usually subject to no-blocking rules.

The carriers support Pai's proposal. The CTIA, which represents wireless companies, said in a filing last week that the proposal “will help ensure that providers retain the ability to fight back against ... harmful traffic and maintain trust in messaging’s reliability and convenience.”

AT&T added in a separate filing that the proposal “empowers wireless providers to continue protecting consumers from unwanted text messages thereby keeping messaging services relatively spam-free.”

The FCC is expected to vote on Pai's proposal Wednesday.

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