Groups push for FCC to act on text-message blocking

They're worried about barriers to free speech

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission needs to prohibit mobile phone carriers from blocking text messages from competitors, a coalition of advocacy groups said today.

Mobile carriers continue to block text messages sent by competitors, and there's nothing stopping them from blocking political messages, said officials with Public Knowledge, Free Press and other groups. The organizations first raised concerns about text-message blocking last September, when Verizon Wireless blocked NARAL Pro-Choice America from sending messages to people who opted into a text-message campaign.

Even though Verizon Wireless quickly reversed its decision after media reports on its blocking of NARAL's messages, the FCC needs to put rules in place, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "If wireless carriers are allowed to decide who can speak to whom, it has huge implications for free speech, civic discourse, accessibility for the disabled ... and for competition," Sohn said.

Public Knowledge and other groups filed comments today in the FCC's inquiry into text-message blocking. Free Press, Public Knowledge and other groups filed a complaint with the FCC in December.

"There is a real and ongoing problem in the U.S. communications network today," the groups said in their new filing. "Those who control the entry points into the communications system want to be able to control who can speak to the public and what can be spoken about through the rapidly growing medium of text messaging. Wireless carriers are currently openly engaging in discrimination against potential competitors, and claim the right to exercise editorial control over what their customers read and who they can communicate with."

Beyond the free speech issues, people with hearing disabilities are increasingly turning to text messaging to communicate using phones, added Karen Peltz Strauss, legal counsel for Communication Service for the Deaf. People who depend on text messaging need FCC guarantees that the capability will not be interfered with, she said.

Verizon and other mobile carriers have argued that an FCC rule is not necessary and could hurt consumers. Mobile phone users could be inundated with spam messages if carriers are not allowed to block some messages, several carriers have argued.

Public Knowledge and other groups calling for FCC action failed to "present any facts that could justify regulation," Verizon Wireless said in March 14 comments to the FCC. Verizon Wireless has approved more than 3,200 requests for groups to send text messages, the company said.

But Verizon also screens advertisers and doesn't allow text campaigns for some products, the company said. If the FCC stops carriers from blocking some messages, "wireless operators would be prohibited from preventing ads promoting drugs, pornographic content, harassing messaging campaigns, or unsolicited messages, from barraging their customers," Verizon said in its filing.

The carriers' concern about spam messages is misguided, said Jed Alpert, CEO of Mobile Commons, a text-messaging marketing vendor. The petition before the FCC is asking the agency to prohibit mobile carriers from blocking messages that their customers have asked to receive, not unwanted spam messages, he said.

"Nothing that's being asked for here, in any way at all, increases the likelihood that anyone would get spam on their mobile phone," Alpert said. "These are all [messaging] programs that require the user opt in, in some cases multiple times."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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