RealTime IT News

Advocacy Groups Seek Uncensored Text Messages

A public advocacy group wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enact a policy that restricts wireless carriers from what the group claims are discriminatory short code text messaging practices.

In what could become a second major battlefront in the net neutrality debate, Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based group focused on citizens' rights in digital communications, has petitioned the FCC to declare that blocking text messages due to competing interests, or because a carrier does not condone a sender's political or social position, is “unjust and unreasonable discrimination.”

The debate stems from two incidents last year regarding Verizon Wireless. The carrier denied a pro-choice group's text messaging campaign last September but reversed its decision following media coverage. Prior to that, Verizon, along with T-Mobile and Alltel, refused short code provisions to a competing wireless player, Rebtel, a Voice over Internet Protocol service provider. Short codes are special phone numbers used for text-based services in much the same way that 411 is used for voice-based directory information.

At issue is whether wireless providers have the right to deny opt-in short code text campaigns and the ramifications that could result on a political and social level.

Following the petition filing in December, the FCC put the request out for public comment. A spokeswoman for the FCC told InternetNews.com the agency is reviewing comments and has no statement regarding future regulatory action.

Verizon initially told Public Knowledge in a letter in December that it was working on a policy regarding short code text messaging. In an email Verizon reiterated it is working on a new policy and also rebutted the advocacy groups' claims.

The carrier, in a formal response filed today to the petition, said carriers are not blocking text messaging and that critics are confusing text messaging services with short code provisioning, stating that the latter does not fall under federal rules such as the Communications Act and that no FCC regulation is required. It calls the net neutrality debate aspect "simply irrelevant," and say messaging only thrives in an unregulated environment.

More adult content and mobile spam?

Verizon also claims regulation would unleash "wide spread availability" of adult content, increased mobile spam, and more costs charged to consumers related to fighting spam.

But those claims are false, according to Public Knowledge and groups supporting FCC regulatory action, which include Free Press, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Union, Educause, Media Access Project, New America Foundation, U.S. PIRG, Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky and CREDO Mobile.

"This is a real first Amendment problem," Jeff Perlman, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Public Knowledge, stated in a press conference call today. "Not everyone can get a New York Times article written when a carrier refused a text messaging service. We need the market regulated to stop carriers from openly blocking certain groups."

Gigi Stone, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, described the FCC's inaction as "regulatory purgatory." The issue, she said, is not only about denying text message access but the impact censorship could have on everything from political elections to business competition.

"We can't have a system where carriers have discretion about who can speak to whom in texting," she said.

Laura Scher, CEO of CREDO Mobile, a long distance communications reseller, echoed Stone's concerns, noting that business competition is a big concern as well.

"Inadequate oversight means fewer choices for business when it comes to messaging services," said Scher. "We don’t know how far carriers are willing to take such censorship," she added, explaining that carriers could prevent text messages about competing products.

"An IT manager may send 10,000 users a text message with a link asking them to check out another provider's offering. The carrier could stop that message," she explained.

As one industry analyst noted, the text access debate touches on everything from censorship to the First Amendment to federal rules relating to non-discrimination against people with disabilities.

"This is a slippery slope with signification constitutional implications," Carmi Levy, senior vice president of strategic consulting at AR Communications, told InternetNews.com.

"Their [carriers] role is to provide service, not to judge access. There is no way for them to come out of this looking good. This is the land of the First Amendment and messing with that is sacrosanct in any form."