Politician Urges FCC To Prevent Blocking Of Text Messages

The New York politician who is championing a bill to regulate online behavioral targeting also is urging the Federal Communications Commission to prevent wireless companies from blocking text messages.

"The same values that motivated the First Amendment are behind attempts to stop corporations from censoring communications between people," Assemblyman Richard Brodsky said Monday in a conference call with reporters.

Brodsky joined in a petition with the FCC filed by Public Knowledge, Free Press and others against Verizon Wireless for allegedly engaging in discrimination by refusing to carry short-code messages for rivals or controversial groups.

Last year, the wireless company refused to allow abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice to use a short code to reach members who had signed up for text messages. Verizon Wireless reversed its decision the same day that a front-page story about the matter appeared in The New York Times. Verizon and Alltel last year also refused to carry short-code messages for the Voice over Internet Protocol company Rebtel.

Verizon is asking the FCC to dismiss the advocates' petition, arguing that the complaints refer to "isolated instances" that don't warrant government involvement. "If consumers want to join a short code campaign that Verizon Wireless has not enabled, they may switch to a provider willing to enable that campaign," the company said in its filing.

Verizon also argues that new rules could force it to allow spammers or pornographers to use short codes. The company said in its FCC comments that it declines to active about 5% of short code campaign proposals for failing to meet the standards. Verizon said its standards "preclude content that promotes the use of alcohol, tobacco products, guns or other weapons, and illegal drugs" and "restrict profanity, depictions of sexual activities, and violence."

Public Knowledge and a consortium of other advocates are urging the FCC to rule on the case even though Verizon ultimately allowed NARAL Pro-Choice to use the short code. Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said Monday in a conference call with reporters that without a clear policy directive, Verizon or other companies could censor groups in the future.

New York's Brodsky added that he's concerned about the civil rights implications of allowing big companies to censor content. He said he's concerned that large corporations now wield the same kind of "enormous economic, social and technical power" that used to be the province of the government. "There is no reason in God's earth to let Google and Yahoo turn into the Alien and Sedition Acts of 2008."

Brodsky additionally is sponsoring legislation in New York regulating companies that collect data about people's online activities for the purpose of serving them ads. Among other requirements, his proposal would require companies that track people online notify users and give them the chance to opt out, even when the tracking is anonymous. Monday, the Association of National Advertisers said it was opposed to that bill.

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