FCC Allows Phone Companies To Block Text Messages

In a blow to consumer advocacy groups and the company Twilio, which offers texting services, the Federal Communications Commission Wednesday classified text messaging as an “information” service.

The classification, approved by a 3-1 party-line vote, means that text-messaging services won't be subject to the same common carrier rules as telephone calls -- including rules that prohibit censorship.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says the move will enable carriers to combat robotexts. “With this decision, the FCC empowers wireless providers to continue taking action to protect American consumers from unwanted text messages,” the FCC stated Wednesday.

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

But consumer groups and Senate Democrats say the FCC could have allowed classified texting as a common-carrier service and still allowed phone providers to block unwanted robotexts. Some consumer groups pointed to a 2016 FCC ruling that said carriers can block robocalls, even though phone calls are usually subject to no-blocking rules.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissented from the ruling, which she criticized as reflecting the FCC's “quest to dismantle the regulatory frameworks that protect Americans.”

Rosenworcel, who also dissented from last year's repeal of the net neutrality rules, compared that decision to the one issued Wednesday. “On the one-year anniversary of the FCC’s misguided net neutrality decision -- which gave your broadband provider the power to block websites and censor online content -- this agency is celebrating by expanding those powers to also include your text messages,” she stated.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who had urged the FCC not to classify texting as an information service, vowed to introduce a bill to revoke the order.

The FCC is "stifling free speech by giving telephone carriers the freedom to block any text message they wish, potentially harming competition and our democracy values,” Markey stated. "Congress can right this wrong, which is why I intend to introduce legislation to rescind this order and establish appropriate safeguards to protect this vital means of communications.”

Texting services company Twilio petitioned the FCC in 2015 to classify text messaging as a “telecommunications” service -- a move that would have prohibited carriers from blocking texts. Before then, the advocacy group Public Knowledge also asked the FCC to declare texting a telecommunications service. Public Knowledge took that step in 2007, after 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.)

Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, stated Tuesday that the FCC's decision does nothing to curb spam, and is not needed to curb spam.”

He added that the organization is urging Congress to overturn the FCC's ruling.

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